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Oppal’s thorough and well-considered report grapples with some intractable problems

It's difficult to argue with many of the sentiments expressed in Commissioner Wally Oppal's report into missing women, which landed on Monday with the kind of heavy thud designed to get attention and denote seriousness.

Mr. Oppal had telegraphed well in advance where he was heading with many of his findings and recommendations. To that extent, the fact that he slammed the police for sloppy, incompetent work that failed dozens of women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, most of them aboriginal, was not a surprise. Nor did his clear sympathies for the women themselves come as much of a shock.

In fact, the most powerful passages in Mr. Oppal's multivolume, 1,448-page report deal with the tragic circumstances that surrounded the lives of more than 60 women who disappeared over a two-decade period – at least 26 murdered by Robert Pickton.

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"Most of us will never have to worry about where we will get our next meal, what we will do to get the money we need to live or where we will sleep," the former B.C. attorney-general and provincial appeal-court judge wrote. "We don't understand what it feels like to be consumed by fears about our physical safety and yet afraid to contact the police. On your own, easily forsaken.

"Forsaken. That is the story of the missing and murdered women."

Just as it was always clear Mr. Oppal would use his inquiry to call for sweeping changes around the way police handle investigations into missing women, it was also certain the report would be criticized by groups who felt the inquiry process was tainted from the outset. And by families who believed that as a former member of the Liberal government, Mr. Oppal was part of the problem. They were never going to trust him no matter how sympathetic his final summary was – and it's difficult to imagine it could have been any more so than it is.

But as much as I applaud Mr. Oppal for a report that is certainly thorough and well considered, I'm far from convinced that it will lead to any real change.

Firstly, there are 63 recommendations. There doesn't seem to be a suggestion made to the commissioner during his nearly three months of hearings that he didn't incorporate into his final document. Certainly many are worthwhile. But many also have price tags attached with no fixed amount written on them.

He calls for emergency-services funding for women engaged in the sex trade, funding for the establishment of a compensation fund for the children of the missing and murdered women, money for a healing fund for missing-women family members, funding for research projects around law reform, and financial resources for the hiring of full-time sex-trade liaison officers. And that's just some of it. The biggest ticket item is Mr. Oppal's call for a regional police force.

That could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

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And all of these requests come at a time when government coffers are shrinking while credit-rating agencies are sounding alarms about provincial debt and calling for balanced budgets.

As I read Mr. Oppal's report and listened to him speak at a news conference, I couldn't help but get the feeling this was a man anxious to show how empathetic he was to the cause of aboriginal people in Canada. And while I don't doubt his sincerity, I found many of his comments to be easily spoken panaceas that sound nice, are hard to disagree with but in the end are nothing more than that – cure-alls not grounded in reality. And certainly not very original.

We must end the racism and gender bias that is prevalent in Canada, he said. We must stop talking about violence against women and do something about it. "Why is there so much poverty among aboriginals in this province?" Mr. Oppal wondered. Indeed, it's been a question asked for decades. If there were easy answers, they would have been found by now. Certainly there are no solutions evident in Mr. Oppal's report and simply demanding we end poverty endemic in aboriginal communities is not going to get us very far.

This is not to say the report is without merit. There are many worthwhile recommendations for both police and government, ones that don't cost money either. He deserves enormous credit for the lengths to which he went to hear as many voices as possible – even though he was criticized for not hearing enough.

In many ways, the respected former jurist was in a no-win situation. No matter what he did or said, it was going to be discounted and discredited by many, especially those in the aboriginal community. Some connected with the missing women disrupted Mr. Oppal's news conference. A few screamed his name and questioned his authority. Others chanted and banged drums. Many cried tears laden with sadness.

In many ways, it illustrated just how difficult and intractable are the problems with which Mr. Oppal was grappling.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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