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Oppal morphs into champion of the underdog

Detail of poster board of 48 missing women - an exhibit at the trial of Robert Pickton in New Westminster January 30, 2007 on the seven day of the trial for accused serial killer Robert Pickton.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

He was called the worst possible choice to head the missing and murdered women inquiry, neither impartial nor independent. His critics accused him of being too close to Crown prosecutors and the Liberal government. He was urged to resign.

Nine months later, Wally Oppal is winning some people over. Some of his strongest critics say he has listened and learned. They have been especially pleased with his efforts to push Attorney-General Barry Penner to provide funds for legal counsel for aboriginal and women's groups at the inquiry.

"We did have some issues with Mr. Oppal at the outset, given that he was part of the [Liberal]government and privy to decisions that [have an]impact on these issues," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said on Thursday in an interview.

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But he said that Mr. Oppal has tried to ensure the inquiry hears the voices of women and aboriginal groups from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and northern B.C. "His support in ensuring that those voices be heard through the inquiry are certainly welcome and we are grateful for his support," Chief Phillip said.

Angela Marie MacDougall, of the Committee of the February 14 Women's Memorial March, said Mr. Oppal recognizes that the integrity of the inquiry and its future will be compromised without the participation of the women's and aboriginal groups, and that the only way they can participate is if they receive government support.

"He is learning, which is the point of this inquiry. It is to learn. The problem right now is the provincial government is not learning, not understanding. They continue to not get it," Ms. MacDougall said.

As attorney-general at the time serial killer Robert Pickton was convicted, Mr. Oppal had rejected calls for an inquiry, saying that an investigation into how police handled Vancouver's Downtown Eastside murders and missing women was not needed. Mr. Oppal was also attorney-general when significant decisions were made related to the Pickton case, including the decision to not proceed with additional charges after Mr. Pickton was convicted of six murders.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and others described Mr. Oppal as a Liberal insider, alleged he was in a conflict of interest and called for his resignation. Chief Phillip call Mr. Oppal's appointment "the worst possible choice."

Mr. Oppal, in a letter to Mr. Penner obtained by The Globe and Mail, urged the provincial government to fund legal counsel for 13 aboriginal and women's groups. Mr. Penner has already rejected an earlier appeal from Mr. Oppal to provide funding.

"Failure to fund the … organizations would leave disenfranchised women and victims in a clearly unfair position at the hearing," he wrote in the letter that emphasized that government funding was essential.

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Mr. Oppal said in an interview he sent a second letter after several groups urged him to do so. Also, he wanted to ensure the government realized the inquiry was expected to be extremely adversarial and that a government suggestion that commission lawyers could represent the groups was impractical.

Experienced lawyers will be representing the police, the police union and Crown prosecutors. "If we are going to learn anything, there has to be some kind of balance," he said. "I get a little worried, these are poor women and victims of violence - their voices need to be heard."

He said he was aware that those who criticized his appointment last fall now have a different attitude toward him. "They realize what I stand for and why we are here," Mr. Oppal said.

"I was only [attorney-general]for four years but I was a judge for 23 years before that and I spoke out, even as a judge, about violence against women," he said. "I think people understand I want to listen to them and hear their voices."

Mr. Penner's office confirmed that Mr. Oppal's letter had been received. Mr. Penner was not available Thursday for comment.

Not all groups involved with the inquiry were as positive about Mr. Oppal. Harsha Walia, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, said she was not surprised that Mr. Oppal had spoken out on behalf of the groups. Mr. Oppal had to contend with growing concern about the integrity of the inquiry, which would be compromised if police were represented by lawyers but women and aboriginal groups were not. "This is such an obvious thing that the commissioner had to stand for," she said in an interview. "It has taken him a while to make that kind of statement."

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Also, the inquiry required the co-operation of the groups in order to compile witness lists for the hearings, Ms. Walia said. "Without those witness lists, the commission cannot function. They are realizing their work is falling apart."

Ms. Walia said she was uncertain whether her opinion has changed on whether Mr. Oppal understands the seriousness of the issues in the Downtown Eastside.

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