New B.C. government must prioritize preventing discrimination against those in severe poverty

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135A Encampment, Surrey, on the unceded territory of the qʼʷa:n̓ƛʼən̓ (Kwantlen), sq̓əc̓iy̓aɁɬ təməxʷ (Katzie) & kʷikʷəƛ̓əm - Kwikwetlem Nations. Image: Meenakshi Mannoe​

This article is part of a miniseries exploring key policy areas that the new B.C. NDP majority government needs to address over the next four years.

In our shared work, the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and Pivot Legal Society strategize to build a strong, inclusive response to poverty informed by a foundation grounded in human rights. We take a particular interest in addressing poverty at the provincial level, and that means we closely watch provincial elections and the governments that follow.

Unsurprisingly, poverty was a critical issue in B.C.'s  recent snap election. So, of course, public discussions of poverty reflect common and widely held (mis)understandings.

At first glance, it's easy to see why poverty was an important election issue. In West Coast LEAF's 2019/20 Gender Equality Report Card, B.C. received close-to-failing marks in economic security (C-), access to justice (C-), and justice for people who are criminalized (D-).

But poverty wasn't in the news because representatives were vying for the most robust poverty reduction strategies -- rather, it was in the news because various candidates made it their business to demean, dehumanize and dismiss the lived and living realities of people who experience homelessness.

In Vancouver, former mayor and B.C. Liberal candidate Sam Sullivan denounced safe consumption sites as unethical. On Vancouver Island, B.C. Liberal candidate Roxanne Helme decried people who live in tents and who consume illicit substances while living outdoors.

These positions weren't out of step with official party platforms -- the B.C. Liberal platform was a throwback to the era of the Safe Streets and Communities Act, proposing increases in funding for police, prosecutors and addiction treatment programs.

The NDP platform didn't significantly diverge from this ideology, similarly calling for "making city streets safer from illegal drugs and violence."

The Green party's platform did shift from this narrative, and acknowledged that current programs actually entrench people in poverty. It also noted that immediate steps like decriminalization of simple possession could reduce the costs of policing, which would enable funding to be reallocated to other programs.

Evidently, tent cities, people sheltering in public spaces, and all forms of "public disorder" due to poverty and the grey economies associated with them have become polarizing topics throughout B.C.

In response, municipalities have attempted to manage communities of people who rely on public space. The "Made in Maple Ridge" model calls for mandated health care and support for all people living in social housing.

In Nanaimo, Mayor Leonard Krog calls for the creation of a secure mental health and addictions facility. In Surrey, the "Police Mental Health Outreach Team" model deploys a visible presence of police, bylaws and social services throughout the city to manage people living in public.

Finally, in Smithers, people sheltering downtown were relocated to the outskirts of the city in response to their growing encampment.

During recent months, the provincial government has also found several occasions to intervene.

In April, Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth authorized an emergency order that led to the evacuation of three encampments in Victoria (Topaz Park, Pandora Avenue) and Vancouver (Oppenheimer Park).

Shortly afterwards, Premier John Horgan chastised municipalities, telling them to enforce local anti-camping bylaws, while then-minister Shane Simpson decried the "protest function" of tent cities.

Simpson's position begs the question: why not protest conditions of poverty and imposed austerity? The government's approach enforces the notion that people who use substances and experience homelessness must be surveilled, policed and institutionalized as the only appropriate intervention.

Public statements, party platforms and proposed solutions from the government perpetuate anti-substance use and anti-homelessness stigma.

Notably, clear plans to actually talk to people experiencing poverty, substance use, and/or homelessness remain absent from political statement-making. Of course, talking (and listening) to people directly impacted by these issues is not politically expedient.

And, as long as homelessness and substance use remain polarizing issues, political candidates prefer to capitalize on the divide, rather than engaging in the complexities of living in poverty, relying on public space, and navigating everyday survival through a gauntlet of discriminatory laws and policies that spell out everywhere you cannot be. We are clearly overdue for a stigma audit in B.C.

The B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and Pivot have identified key upstream interventions that could potentially reduce the harms of discriminatory laws and policies.

Both of our organizations have advocated for amending the B.C. Human Rights Code (HRC) to include protections based on "social condition." 

The B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition's Blueprint for Justice, released in October, foregrounds the necessity of amending the HRC.

While people experiencing some combination of low-income status, homelessness or precarious housing, reliance on government income support programs, unemployment or underemployment, and limited education face barriers to economic, social, political, and cultural life, the HRC does not prohibit discrimination based on social condition. Advocates in B.C. must be equipped to prevent discrimination against people based on their social condition.

We are looking to the next provincial government to take the concrete step of amending the HRC to include this amendment as a top and immediate priority.

We further call on the B.C. human rights commissioner to prioritize this amendment to the code. Of course, human rights protections alone cannot prevent discrimination, as several election candidates demonstrated through their association with homophobic and transphobic institutions and statements.

There are well-documented gaps in the current legal aid system in B.C. that further highlight the need to defund the police and eradicate systemic barriers facing Black and Indigenous people in B.C.

Upstream protections will enable advocates to begin dismantling anti-poor laws, policies and rhetoric. If the next provincial government plans to actually commit to protecting human rights and not just use it as a buzzword when seeking office, we recommend they start listening to front-line communities across the province instead of relying on stale tropes.

Our provincial government made history when it introduced B.C.'s first poverty reduction strategy in 2018, Together BC, but we must raise the bar and demand the elimination of anti-poor discrimination and the outright eradication of poverty and stigma.

Meenakshi Mannoe is a criminalization & policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society. Viveca Ellis is an interim community organizer with B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.

Image: Meenakshi Mannoe​

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