One of the saddest events of the pre-Christmas period was the release of Wally Oppal's report on the findings of his missing women inquiry. Sad because so many people found the report so inadequate and felt betrayed by the outcome of the inquiry. Sad because the report seemed to tell us little that we didn't already know about the mishandling of the Pickton case by the police. And sad because the whole process feels like it didn't do much to protect sex trade workers who still have to carry on business in conditions that are unsafe and intolerable.
I felt sorry for Mr. Oppal as he carried out his inquiry. To me, his conduct throughout showed him to be a deeply compassionate person, but he was caught between a government that wanted him to keep to a very confined mandate and a community that wanted to be heard. He pushed against the constraints that were placed on him, but he was never going to satisfy the demand that his inquiry become an investigation of all the problems that plague Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Given Mr. Oppal's mandate, it was inevitable that his report should focus fairly narrowly on police matters and particularly on his call for some kind of regional police force. Whether or not this is a good idea, most commentators seem to agree it isn't going to happen anyway. And as someone who has researched the history of prostitution in the city, I don't think it really much matters. A reconfigured police force is not going to stop serial killers like Pickton, or do much to improve the lives of young women who find it necessary to engage in the street level sex trade. For that we need changes to the criminal code that will protect vulnerable women and that is a matter for the federal government.
Which doesn't mean there is nothing that the city and the province can do. Mr. Oppal makes several recommendations in this regard. I hope that both levels of government will act on them. But the most important step would be to change the laws that force sex workers into the shadows where they are vulnerable to predators like Pickton.
In the meantime journalist Frances Bula has a thoughtful article about prostitution in the most recent issue of Vancouver Magazine. You can find it online here.