Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Professor Michelle Flaherty is a faculty member at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, French Common Law.

On December 17, 2012, Commissioner Wally Oppal released his final report in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.   It is a wide-ranging and almost 1500 page document.  The issues it considers range from details of the lives of many of the missing and murdered women, the Crown’s tragic decision to stay charges against serial killer Robert Pickton in 1997 (four years before a later arrest lead to convictions), and what Commissioner Oppal calls “critical police failures”.  

The families of victims of Robert Pickton were among the strongest voices calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered women. But the Inquiry goes beyond Pickton’s victims and considers all women missing from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side whose disappearances were or could have been reported and who were not later found alive or whose death has not been attributed to natural causes.  There are 67 women identified in the report, many of whom were aboriginal and all of whom were poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised.  As the report points out, the disappearance and murder of women from the Downtown East Side of Vancouver is part of a much larger and systemic problem.  The UN estimates that there are 134 million women “missing” worldwide.

The report’s length, its detail, and its wide-ranging scope make it a daunting read.  Yet it tells a very important story, one that begins with a thoughtful and respectful account of the lives of the missing and murdered women: we hear about one women’s words of goodbye as she tucked in her small children for the last time, another whose friend described in her loving and joyful terms,  and a third who left hospital shortly after given birth to a baby, never to be seen or heard from again.  The report humanizes the women’s experience and makes it so clear that missing and murdered women are individuals worthy of dignity and respect, but whom society has so tragically failed. 

As is typical with media reports on Commission Inquiry findings, however, he initial coverage touches only the surface of the evidence considered and the recommendations made.  By the time pundits and others have read and digested the magnitude of such a report, the busy news cycle has generally moved on to other matters. 

Typically, commissions such as this one are struck to consider issues that touch on systemic problems and raise broader social concerns.  Our society devotes considerable resources to conducting these inquiries because the issues they investigate are of larger social importance.  Somehow, though, this seems to get lost in the speed of the news cycle and many of the findings and recommendations never really reach a larger audience.  Commissioners like Justice Opal (and Justice Major in the Air India Report) find themselves urging people to actually read their reports. 

The missing women report, in particular, touches on a number of recurring themes, including serious failures in policing (consider the Air India Inquiry, the Inquiry on the death of Robert Dziekanski, the Cornwall Public Inquiry, Inquiry into Policing in British Columbia).  Like many other commissions before it (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Inquiry Into Matters Relating to the Death of Neil Stonechild, the Ipperwash Inquiry), it relates to our inability to meet the needs of our aboriginal people.  Many of the recommendations in commission reports follow a similarly recurring theme: often they are never acted upon.   

Why should we take the time to actually read this lengthy report?  As the Commission report aptly put it:

It is important to recognize the role that our collective complacency, of public and political indifference played in contributing to the abandonment of this group of women. In his opening remarks at the hearing, Grand Chief Ed John referred to Supreme Court of Canada Judge, Madam Justice Abella’s reminder that history, and particularly World War II, has taught us that indifference permits injustice. She summarizes these teachings into three lessons:

1.    Indifference is injustice’s incubator;
2.        It’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and
3.        We must never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.

As I sat up late last night reading the first few hundred pages of the report, I had difficulty putting it down.  It is highly readable and it tells a compelling story, one that deserves to be read. 

The Report is available online.

Designed by Rachel Gold.