OPEN LETTER TO OUR COMMUNITY MEMBERS, ALLIES, COMMISSION OF INQUIRY, LAWYERS, AND MEDIA
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Women’s Memorial March Committee Object to Missing Women’s Commission’s Latest Amicus Proposal
August 5th 2011 Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories – The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Feb 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee strongly object to the Missing Women’s Commission latest proposal to retain and fund one or two independent lawyers (amici) to “present the perspectives of the Downtown Eastside community and Aboriginal women.”
The DEWC, established in 1978, exists to support and empower women and children living in extreme poverty in the DTES of Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. The Centre is unique, in that it is one of the only safe spaces within the Downtown Eastside specifically and exclusively for women and their children. We provide practical support to over 300 women and children on a daily basis. We are also committed to long term systemic change of the realities of poverty, racism, colonization, violence against women, addictions, disability, child apprehension, policing, and more which marks the lives of the women who access our space and services. Many of the women who have gone missing or have been murdered were members of the DEWC.
The February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee was founded in 1992 when a woman was found murdered on Powell Street. Since then, over the past 20 years, the Committee has organized for justice for missing and murdered women and raised local, national, and international attention on the issue. An annual march on February 14th is led by women in the DTES because women, especially Indigenous women, face physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence on a daily basis. Increasing deaths of many vulnerable women from the DTES still leaves family, friends, loved ones, and community members with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss. Every year the list of women going missing also increases and we are committed to justice.
The DEWC and Women’s Memorial March Committee as a formal Coalition with a full grant of standing before the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, is opposed to the proposal regarding an independent lawyer to present all the perspectives of the DTES. Our group was not even contacted by the Commission to see if we were amenable to this proposal, rather it was presented as a “fait accompli” and expressions of interests from lawyers were sought within three days.
The latest proposal is a further slap in our face, which comes in light of the BC government’s decision to shut out participation of DTES, Women’s and Indigenous groups and communities. The purpose of the public inquiry is being whittled away – the adversarial process already makes it highly improbable for vulnerable women to provide their testimonies as they will be subjected to rigorous cross examination by the police’s lawyers. This is highly objectionable as it revictimizes and traumatizes survivors of violence in an Inquiry that is supposed to bring some level of justice for them.
The most recent proposal is an insulting gesture to those grassroots women and communities that have called for a public inquiry for decades. It tokenizes participation of all the groups granted standing and shows an utter lack of respect for the multi-dimensional experiences of those impacted by suggesting that one or two lawyers will “represent” their interest. While the Inquiry process has framed us as ‘money-hungry’ groups, the reality is that the police departments have an undisclosed number of lawyers on their legal team, while the entire ‘public interest’ would now be served by 1-2 lawyers. This is an untenable task and fundamentally unfair.
The participation of the DEWC and the Women’s Memorial March Committee in the Commission of Inquiry, the ability to provide instructions, and the ability to access documents will all be negated by this proposal. The effect of the proposal is similar to the revocation of our full grant of standing and the denial of the funding recommendation. These amicus lawyers are not actually legally accountable to any “client” and are not taking instructions from any specific group. Therefore there is no structural guarantee that the voices of women, especially Indigenous women, in the DTES – who are the survivors of these horrors – will be at the centre of this process. Nor will these ‘independent’ lawyers have the capacity to defend and support women who are witnesses and build the same trust relationship with individual women. Finally, given the current wording of the undertakings that have to be signed regarding the confidentiality of legal documents, it is our understanding that we will not even be privy to the details in the legal documents. We believe that these legal documents, particularly all those documents that implicate police and officials, MUST be accessible to and made available for the public to see.
The amicus proposal is an attempt to lend legitimacy to a fundamentally flawed process by having a few lawyers who purportedly serve all our interests. In other cases where amicus models have been used, they are usually to present a single position on a single issue. In this case there are multiple issues and multiple positions. Most importantly, our organizations and women living in the DTES have to be key participants with full standing and representation throughout the process and not become relegated to ‘issues’ that get generalized through an amicus lawyer.
Women in the DTES have their own voices and stories and critical information to share with this Inquiry and have been demanding the space to do so for decades, but this Inquiry no longer facilitates that possibility. The police are armed with well-paid legal teams, and we have recently learnt that embedded police experts are reviewing legal documents which we do not have access to.
The Inquiry thus far has protected the interests of those it is supposed to be investigating – the police. It begs the question – what do the police and officials have to hide and why is the Inquiry serving them? The Commissioner has already recognized that the Inquiry will be unfair without the participation of the groups granted standing and has strongly recommended the funding of the groups. This amicus proposal is clearly not in the interests of the Commission and further compromises its integrity by caving to the provincial government.
We are asking lawyers aligned with us to not engage with the amicus proposal as doing so would lend legitimacy to a corrupted process which increasingly feels like nothing more than a cover-up. Though we have not yet made any final decisions, given the latest developments, DEWC and the Women’s Memorial March Committee are considering what, if any, participation we can have in this Inquiry. This was supposed to be our Inquiry – one that shed light on the crimes and complicity of the police and officials. But it appears there is no justice and no public in this Inquiry and the meaningful participation of women and the community has effectively been denied.
The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and the February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee
For more information contact Harsha Walia: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 778 885 0040