There is no question that Wally Oppal, former attorney general of B.C., is qualified to speak about the state of the justice system in our country, and judging by the questions he fielded on Sept. 8, it’s a subject local people are passionate about too.
Oppal delivered this year’s Clifford Smith Memorial Lecture. The annual event, sponsored by Eldercollege, a program of Capilano University, honours Smith’s dedication to education on the Coast. He was an original member of the board of Eldercollege.
Oppal has a distinguished legal pedigree. In his most recent public service, he headed the inquiry into missing women from the Downtown Eastside and northern B.C.’s Highway of Tears. Oppal’s final report is due Oct. 31.
He has been a special prosecutor and a judge at the Supreme Court of B.C. and the B.C. Court of Appeal. He also served as a cabinet minister in the Liberal government under Gordon Campbell. In addition to attorney general, Oppal was minister responsible for multiculturalism.
Over the years, Oppal has also been known for his pro bono work. He’s currently the chancellor of Thompson University and sits on the board of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation.
Before getting into the subject of his talk, “Is the justice system soft on crime?” Oppal took a shot at those in the media who’ve been critical of the cost of the Missing Women’s Commission.
Roughly $8 million has been spent by the Commission to hear the testimony of police, families of the women and other concerned parties into the inquiry of the handling of the missing women’s cases. Allegations of botched policing and lack of political will to find the women have been recurring themes.
It was important for the families of the women to be heard, Oppal said. Comparing the Commission’s costs to the more than $200 million spent investigating Robert Picton, the convicted killer of six of the missing women (a further 20 cases against him were stayed) and the $12 million was spent on defence lawyers for Picton, the cries of overspending by the Commission are unjustified, Oppal said.
He related a conversation with a doctor who practised medicine for 35 years in Hazelton, a community on the Highway of Tears in northern B.C. where many women have also gone missing. The doctor told Oppal the mainly Aboriginal people in the area were convinced no one considered them important.
“We’ve [the Commission] listened to those people who’ve been given the back of our hands from the rest of society,” Oppal stressed.
Oppal also commented on another justice item.
Recently a young woman involved in the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver in 2011 was not given jail time, much to the dismay of many pundits.
Oppal, who emphasized he hadn’t read the judge’s comments in that case, said that on the surface it appeared justice had been served. The woman has lost jobs and has been publicly humiliated.
“What will we gain by sending her to jail? The public didn’t need protection from her,” Oppal reasoned.
However, he doesn’t always agree with some of the sentences given. Where violence is involved and victims are hugely impacted, then often accountability can only be achieved by incarceration, he said.
“Jail has a real purpose. I sent a lot of people to jail,” he said.
But he argued that imprisonment in the case of young people is often a mistake.
“Not much good will result from that — they’ll come out worse,” he declared.
One audience member, a passionate advocate of restorative justice, asked why, if deterrence is so important, that more money is not spent on restorative justice.
Oppal pointed out the rising costs of health and education as being the reason more funds are not available. Because of our aging population, he foresees that soon 97 per cent of the B.C. budget will go to these categories.
Oppal is not a fan of the war on drugs. While he didn’t state his position directly, he mentioned growing up in the ‘60s, a comment that brought chuckles from the audience. One of the consequences of the “war” is the number of prisoners in American jails who are growing older.
“I’m not criticizing their system. That’s what the Americans want, but no one size fits all,” Oppal said.
It’s often difficult to deter some crime because of the mindsets involved, the former judge said.
For example, a rash of street racing in the late 1990s gave rise to a new law punishing the crime with a minimum of five years in prison. Two young guys in hot cars stopped at an intersection looking to race don’t give a thought to the Criminal Code, Oppal said, so the result of the legislation is negated.
“Our criminal justice is looked at as one of the best in the western world,” Oppal said. “We are very fair, people are convicted for the right reasons, and they have had full opportunity to defend themselves.
“Our system is loose when it comes to timing. Our trials become endless. Bernie Matlock [a notorious white-collar American criminal] was convicted within six months. That could never happen in Canada.”
Oppal was acknowledged by audience member Jancis Andrews of Sechelt for his role in bringing the polygamist Bountiful, B.C. case to the courts when he was attorney general. Oppal said that happened over the protests of many in the province. They told him no witnesses would come forward.
Oppal decided that he had (possibly) four years to do something about the case he saw as sexual assault and sexual exploitation of young girls. There was something wrong about 15-year-old girls being wed to 55-year-old men, he thought. And while many argued the case would come up against the Canadian Charter of Rights’ freedom of religion, Oppal decided that no Charter right is absolute and that what was happening in Bountiful left women treated as chattels. That case is still before the courts.
Right now the jury’s out on Oppal’s future plans. But a vacation is definitely in the works. A trip to Barcelona, Spain last year where he was free to walk down the street without being recognized was a pleasure, one he’d like to repeat. However, it’s fair to say the province hasn’t seen the last of this affable jurist.