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Independent probe finds no evidence of sexual harassment at Pickton inquiry

VANCOUVER – An investigation into claims of sexual harassment within the offices of the Robert Pickton inquiry found no evidence to corroborate what remain anonymous allegations published in the media, says a report by the lawyer who conducted the probe.

The National Post newspaper published a story in April that relied on anonymous sources who alleged they were sexually harassed while working at the commission.

The article prompted commissioner Wally Oppal to appoint an independent lawyer, Delayne Sartison, to look into the allegations. In the meantime, the commission’s executive director, John Boddie, took a paid leave of absence to ensure the investigation’s independence.

Sartison interviewed current and former staff members but found no evidence of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination, according to her report, released by the commission on Wednesday.

“Many of the staff interviewed expressed that they were ‘very surprised’ or ‘shocked’ to learn of allegations of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination at the commission,” says the report.

“These staff said they had never experienced or witnessed any conduct or communication which made them feel uncomfortable while working with the commission.”

Sartison’s terms of reference were to determine whether there was any evidence that would contravene the discrimination provisions in the province’s human rights code.

“We have concluded there is no basis upon which to find that conduct constituting a violation of section 13(1) of the Human Rights Code, in particular, discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, occurred in the commission workplace,” the report says.

Sartison’s report says she contacted current and former staff and received responses from most, but not all, of them. She acknowledges some staff members declined to participate, citing concerns their identities would not remain confidential.

Sartison also notes the majority of staff who work or have worked for the commission have been women, with notable exceptions being Oppal, Boddie and commission lawyer Art Vertlieb.

Peter Gall, a lawyer appointed by Oppal to advise the commission about Sartison’s investigation, issued a statement saying Boddie had resumed his duties as executive director.

“He took this leave of absence because of his commitment to the important work being done through this commission of inquiry. He did not want any misperceptions to occur during the independent investigation,” Gall said in his statement.

“Mr. Boddie’s leave of absence should in no way be interpreted as anything except a necessary precaution and it does not reflect on his personal or professional integrity.”

The provincial government announced the inquiry in September 2010, though it did not start hearing evidence until last October. Those hearings wrapped up last week, with Oppal’s final report due to the provincial government by Oct. 31.

The sexual harassment allegations were just the latest in a series of controversies to plague the hearings.

When Oppal, a former judge and one-time Liberal attorney general, was appointed to the inquiry, critics raised concerns about his independence.

Those same critics have also argued the inquiry’s terms of reference are too narrow, because they focus exclusively on the actions of police and prosecutors rather than the social problems that led Pickton’s victims — impoverished, drug-addicted women, including many aboriginals — into sex work in the first place.

Last year, a number of participant groups, including aboriginal organizations and sex worker advocates, withdrew after the provincial government refused to provide them with legal funding.

Independent lawyer Robyn Gervais, who was appointed by Oppal to represent the interests of aboriginal people, resigned earlier this year over complaints about the process. She did not raise any concerns about her working conditions.

Pickton was arrested in 2002 and eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he murdered a total of 49.