Distrust, Anger Builds

Over Politician's Appointment

To Head Pickton Inquiry

BY IAN MULGREW, VANCOUVER SUN

Sept. 28, 2010

Presented Here By

Bonnie M. Wells

VANCOUVER A chorus of criticism greeted the appointment Tuesday of former British Columbia attorney general Wally Oppal to head the public inquiry into Robert (Willie) Pickton's serial-killing spree.

Oppal, 70, served on the province's Supreme Court and Court of Appeal for two decades and was chairman of a much-lauded inquiry into B.C.'s patchwork policing regime in the 1990s.

He retired from the bench in 2005 and successfully ran for the provincial Liberal Party in that year's election. He served as attorney general until he was defeated in the last provincial vote.

Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, criticized the appointment, saying Oppal has too many ties to the Liberal government that raise questions about his objectivity.

Phillip, who speaks for 99 provincial native bands, said the B.C. government should have consulted with aboriginal groups or women's organizations about the terms of reference.

"I cannot begin to tell you how upset I am," he fumed. "This comes as a complete surprise. We were not consulted with regard to either the appointment or the terms of reference. We're definitely not happy about this."

Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver-area district of Port Coquitlam, was charged with the murders of 26 women and convicted in December 2007 of second-degree murder in six of those cases. The Crown has since decided not to pursue the remaining 20 charges.

Family members of Pickton's victims were also critical of Oppal's appointment. As head of the inquiry, which will review the police investigation into the serial killer, Oppal will consider what changes, if any, should be made to the province's policing structure to prevent a similar string of murders.

Rick Frey, the father of Pickton victim Marnie Frey, questioned whether Oppal was unbiased enough for the role since he served as attorney general before his election defeat in 2009.

"Wally has probably got very good credentials. He's a smart guy. But I think he was too close to it all," said Frey in a telephone interview.

Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara Ellis is among the 20 murder counts dropped by the Crown, agreed.

"I am sure not very happy with the choice for the head of this public inquiry," she said in an email. "How are we going to get the truth if the person heading this was a part of the problem?"

B.C. NDP leader Carole James also voiced her concerns.

"Wally Oppal certainly has a lot of skills and abilities but I do worry once again that the government is not talking to the people who are going to be directly impacted," she said.

"He was part of this government, he was attorney general, so he was in a key position. I think there is a perception there may not be independence there. . . . Perceptions, whether reality or not, cause concern."

B.C. Attorney General Mike de Jong, who appointed Oppal, dismissed the complaints.

"I'm not aware of any circumstances that would preclude Mr. Oppal from performing this task in as professional a way as he has performed every other task he has as a public servant," de Jong said.

"Mr. Oppal comes to this assignment with an impeccable track record of public service. . . . As an individual, while serving on the bench and while serving as attorney general, he distinguished himself in my view as having an ability to empathize in a very human way. He was a very human judge and as attorney general he brought those qualities to the task."

Oppal, he added, served as attorney general years after Pickton was arrested and charged with 26 murders.

The new inquiry commissioner also defended his conduct in office and on the bench.

"I see no conflict," Oppal maintained.

Oppal is expected to deliver his report by the end of 2011.

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