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Drop-in centre for sex workers weighing options for Pickton inquiry

VANCOUVER -- A drop-in centre for sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside says it's still weighing its options for the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case.

Commissioner Wally Oppal appointed two independent lawyers earlier this week to represent the interests of Downtown Eastside residents and aboriginal women, ordering them to take guidance from about a dozen participant groups that were denied government funding to pay their legal bills.

Kate Gibson says her organization, the WISH drop-in centre, can't afford to pay a lawyer to attend, though she said WISH hasn't decided whether to join others that have formally withdrawn and is considering other ways to be involved.

Gibson said WISH hasn't yet been asked to provide the two independent lawyers with advice and hasn't decided how to respond when that happens, but she noted the lawyers have a difficult job ahead of them.

"It's two counsel who are somehow charged with what looks like an impossible task of bringing forward concerns, issues, reports, testimony from people from a very large community that has been severely affected by the missing and murdered women and violence against women," Gibson said in an interview.

"We haven't been approached yet, so when we're approached, then we can discuss what it is they're looking for."

WISH is among a dozen participants that were denied assistance from the provincial government, despite Oppal's recommendation that they receive funding to cover their legal bills.

Several of those groups have either formally pulled out of the inquiry or have said they can't afford to send lawyers to make submissions and question witnesses.

At the very least, Gibson said WISH will have representatives in the room watching the hearings when they begin in October.

"We aren't able to participate formally because we aren't able to afford legal representation, but we are still trying to determine how to participate in a way that would support women or enable women to come forward or to bring information to light that should be examined or heard," said Gibson.

Oppal, a former judge and one-time attorney general, was asked to examine how Pickton was able to spend years murdering sex workers from the Downtown Eastside before he was arrested in 2002.

Oppal will also hold a less-formal study commission that will look at broader issues surrounding missing and murdered women, including cases along the so-called Highway of Tears in northern B.C.

Pickton was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam, and he bragged to police that he killed 49.

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