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‘I saw I couldn’t do my job,’ says lawyer who quit missing women inquiry

Mar 22 2012
Robyn Gervais, left, and Laura Track at Wednesday's panel discussion at the University of Victoria. 

Robyn Gervais, left, and Laura Track at Wednesday's panel discussion at the University of Victoria.

Photograph by: ADRIAN LAM, timescolonist.com

Quitting was better than giving credibility to a flawed process by continuing to struggle to represent aboriginal interests at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, lawyer Robyn Gervais said Wednesday.

Gervais withdrew on

March 6, saying there was a disproportionate focus on police evidence and aboriginal interests were not being met.

“Initially, I thought it was better to have some aboriginal voices at the table,” said Gervais, who took part in a panel discussion at the University of Victoria Wednesday.

“But, as the process unfolded, with most of the evidence coming from police officers and little from the aboriginal community, I saw I couldn’t do my job and staying would lend credibility to the process,” she said in an interview.

Gervais was appointed in August to represent aboriginal interests after all First Nations groups withdrew from the inquiry when the provincial government refused to pay for legal funding. The government paid only for two lawyers to represent the families of Pickton’s victims.

Gervais’s departure was followed by the withdrawal of the First Nations Summit. Most First Nations organizations boycotted the inquiry last year after the provincial government refused to provide individual groups with legal funding.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Wally Oppal named Gervais’s replacements, appointing lawyers Suzette Narbonne and Elizabeth Hunt as independent co-counsel to represent aboriginal issues at the probe examining police failures in the investigation that led to the capture of serial killer Robert Pickton.

Narbonne has more than 20 years’ experience as a lawyer, while Hunt, a member of the Kwakiutl Nation, is expected to bring the aboriginal perspective to the inquiry.

The inquiry into the Pickton case is looking at why it took police so long to catch the serial killer, most of whose victims were poor, aboriginal woman living in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

But the voices of the community are missing, said Gervais and fellow panel members Laura Track, legal director for West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, and Jen Allan, a former sex-trade worker who now runs Jen’s Kitchen, a counselling, food and advocacy organization in the Downtown East Side.

The inquiry should be looking at systemic racism, said Gervais, who is Métis.

But the terms of reference are an impossible hurdle, she said.

Oppal has said he is committed to hearing the stories of how First Nations women were treated by the RCMP and Vancouver police during the Pickton investigation, but that historic injustices do not fit within the framework.

The lack of buy-in from the community means the inquiry will have little impact, said Gervais, who hopes that, when the Oppal report is submitted at the end of June, it will be followed by a national inquiry.

“This process, without an equal voice between the police and community, will not work,” she said.

Complaints have also been made to international committees under the umbrella of the United Nations.

Some evidence heard from police is valuable as it underlines the failings of the investigation, said Gervais, who believes there will be useful recommendations on improving policing.

“But they haven’t heard the other side of the story from the community,” she said.

The inquiry is set to resume on April 2.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

— with a file from Postmedia News

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