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The NDP MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers, Rachna Singh, is leading efforts to consult British Columbians and write a new anti-racism law.
Adam Olsen, Green party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Racial justice campaigners want dramatic reform to stop the over-policing of racialized groups, the collection of race-based data to better understand who is being left behind, and anti-racism education in B.C.’s school curriculum.
The weight of these expectations sits heavy on the shoulders of Rachna Singh, B.C.’s first parliamentary secretary for anti-racism. She has promised to listen to community groups across the province as the government drafts anti-racism legislation and reforms the way police interact with Black and Indigenous peoples and people of colour.
But critics wonder whether one piece of legislation can dismantle systemic racism that is deeply entrenched in health care, the criminal justice system and education.
Singh, who was elected in 2017 to represent Surrey-Green Timbers, said her background as a drug and alcohol counsellor and counsellor for domestic violence victims gave her a first-hand understanding of why racialized individuals have a harder time accessing resources and advocating for themselves.
She also remembers well the difficult talk she and her husband had with their then-teenage son after a classmate used a racial slur during an argument.
“That was a harsh reality for us,” she said. “But it also opened us to more conversations about how you cannot just be a bystander.”
Singh acknowledges the Herculean task of undoing systemic racism in government institutions. But she said it’s significant that Premier John Horgan has ordered, through mandate letters, that every cabinet minister view their work through an anti-racism lens. Last year’s Black Lives Matter rallies across B.C. and the world forced a reckoning over police use of force while the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the poorer health outcomes of racialized people.
“This change is happening because the grassroots organizations have advocated for it for a number of years,” Singh said.
This spring, she will start an extensive consultation with community groups and advocates about their hopes for the Anti-Racism Act, which will replace the 25-year-old Multiculturalism Act.
She couldn’t provide a timeline for when the legislation will be introduced. What will come sooner, she said, is a policy that sets a standard for race-based data collection in order to measure how racialized groups are falling behind in health, education and the labour market.
The consequence of the data gap has been especially stark during the COVID-19 pandemic as B.C. public health officials have been unable to definitively say whether racialized groups are infected with the virus at higher rates.
In the U.S., where race-based data is collected, the virus has disproportionately hit Black Americans, who are nearly three times as likely to contract the virus than white Americans, and twice as likely to die . Data released by the First Nations Health Authority shows that Indigenous people in B.C. have been hit harder by the virus.
Singh said consultation is needed to determine the best way to collect the data, store it and use it to ensure it doesn’t further stigmatize certain groups.
During the election campaign in October, Horgan had to take back comments he made during a leaders’ debates that he doesn’t see colour. The public backlash was swift as racialized British Columbians asked Horgan to acknowledge their colour.
Adam Olsen, Green party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, said that moment is symbolic of the colour-blind system that for years has prevented evidence-based policies from improving life for marginalized groups.
“The premier represents an institution that doesn’t see colour,” said Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation. “If you don’t ask the questions, you don’t collect the data, then you don’t know and you become blind to the nuances of the way policies are affecting outcomes for different people.”
The former child and youth representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, released a landmark report last year that found Indigenous people’s health is suffering as a result of systemic racism in the health care system. The former judge said she heard anecdotes about discrimination faced by other racialized groups but the data doesn’t exist to quantify it.
The importance of race-based data collection has also been raised by B.C.’s human rights commissioner , chief coroner and the representative for children and youth in submissions to the committee to reform the Police Act. Data presented by Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe shows that Indigenous people disproportionately die in police custody or within 24 hours of contact with police. However, because police agencies don’t collect race and ethnicity data for Black, South Asian and other racialized communities, the province is in the dark about whether the same disparities exist when police interact with those groups.
Ontario is the only province that requires race or ethnicity data to be collected in police use-of-force cases. A study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in August found that Black people in Toronto are almost 20 times as likely a white person to be fatally shot by police and six times as likely to be taken down by a police dog.
B.C.’s all-party committee, which is working to reform the Police Act to address systemic racism, was struck by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth last July in response to Black Lives Matter rallies across Canada following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, is skeptical of whether the province is committed to a major overhaul of policing in B.C., including a ban on street checks that disproportionately target racialized people and those living in poverty.
“We don’t need to tinker around the edges, we need to squarely address the scope of the police power,” Walia said.
Vancouver police data collected last year by the civil liberties group and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs showed Indigenous and Black people are overrepresented in street checks, a process where officers stop and question individuals who are not suspected of having committed a crime. Despite rules brought in by the province in January 2020 to regulate street checks , police continue the practice as part of a “proactive policing” strategy.
Vancouver police have faced intense criticism following last month’s violent arrests of Indigenous people protesting in the lobby of an insurance company associated with the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. The department has promised an internal review of the arrests, which were caught on video.
High-profile incidents of police brutality have increased calls to “defund the police,” a slogan that triggers an emotional and divisive response, said B.C.’s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender.
“I’ve used quite intentionally the language of de-tasking the police to really focus on how can we reimagine community and public safety,” she said. “Would it be a safer, less discriminatory, more equal society if we had more robust mental health services instead of continually increasing police budgets?”
Govender is encouraged by the work on police reform and anti-racism legislation but said it will take more than words to have a measurable impact on people’s lives.
“It’s so important that the anti-racism legislation that’s being proposed be substantive and more than symbolic,” Govender said.
June Francis, an associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University and member of Hogan’s Alley Society, said the government must provide reparations for discriminatory policies such as the destruction of Hogan’s Alley, a vibrant community of Black Vancouverites that was destroyed in the 1970s during the construction of on-ramps to the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
Francis said while she’s glad the government wants to hear from a large swath of society on how to enact meaningful anti-racism reforms, “unless their input is taken seriously … you’re just going to use it for performative purposes.”
“It seems a bit unfair if the government is coming with its understanding of drafting legislation and there is no professional eyes or capacity on the other end to fully review the implications for our community,” she said.
In February, Premier Horgan called for violence against people of colour to be prosecuted as hate crimes, saying he’s disturbed by a Vancouver police report that shows a seven-fold increase in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year, largely fuelled by the pandemic.
Teresa Wat, the Liberal critic on anti-racism measures and multiculturalism minister in Christy Clark’s Liberal government, suspects there are more hate crimes that go unreported, which is why she’d like to see a multilingual hotline created for reporting such incidents.
Contrary to the calls to allocate less funding to police, Wat and the B.C. Liberals say overstretched police departments need more resources to respond to hate crimes. Pointing to the work she did in 2017 to integrate Chinese-Canadian, Japanese-Canadian and Indigenous history into the Grade 5 curriculum, Wat said education is a powerful tool in promoting anti-racism among children at an early age.
The B.C. Black History Awareness Society is working with the Ministry of Education to develop an anti-racism curriculum that recognizes the significant contributions of people of colour. Work that started last summer was put on hold because of the October election, but the society’s president, Silvia Mangue Alene, said talks with the ministry will resume this month. She also stresses the importance of anti-racism training for teachers and staff and more diverse representation in schools.
“We think it’s important that they attract Black teachers, Chinese, Indigenous teachers, to make an effort to bring these communities into the teaching profession,” she said. “These people, when they were growing up, they didn’t have this representation.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021