It's time to add "social condition" to the Human Rights Code
More than a decade after the Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel recommended that “social condition” be added as a prohibited ground of discrimination, neither the BC Human Rights Code or the Canadian Human Rights Act have been amended to afford protection to people who face discrimination on the basis of extreme economic and social marginalization. Now, two East Vancouver politicians are taking action to address this oversight. Libby Davies (MP for Vancouver East) and Jenny Kwan ( MLA for Vancouver Mount Pleasant), have introduced separate private member’s bills with the intention of amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and BC Human Rights Code to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of social condition.
The British Columbia Human Rights Code has a provision that prevents discrimination on the basis of lawful source of income in relation to tenancy matters (basically to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to people collecting income assistance), but otherwise, homeless people, people with limited education, and people on income assistance are not protected from discrimination. Over the years, this gap in human rights protection has impacted the way in which Pivot has brought forward human rights complaints.
Our work on private security and human rights is a case in point. Pivot is involved with two separate human rights complaints related to the treatment of marginalized people by private security companies. The first is a systemic complaint alleging discrimination against people who are (or appear to be) street homeless or addicted by the Downtown Ambassadors - a private security patrol program funded by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.
Disclosure obtained during the Human Rights Tribunal hearing, including the Ambassadors’ own electronic patrol records, shows that Ambassadors removed people coded as “sleepers”, “street people”, “drug users” and “panhandlers” from public space thousands of times between September 2005 and March 2010. While their own records demonstrate an institutionalized practice of categorizing people based on social condition, only discrimination against drug users (as persons with a disability) is actionable within the current human rights context. We were forced to bring this case forward by demonstrating that individuals protected on other grounds, including Aboriginal ancestry and disability, are disproportionally represented among the homeless. While this overlap is important for understanding both poverty and discrimination, these groups are not interchangeable.
In the second complaint, filed last month on behalf of three men who allege they were dragged into stairwells and brutally assaulted by private security guards in the Harbour Centre Mall, all three complainants suffer from a chronic disability - alcoholism. A perception of these men as alcoholics appears to have played a role in each of their cases, and again we were able to bring their case on the grounds that they were discriminated against due to their disability. However, if another individual comes forward who isn’t an alcoholic but was still mistreated because of the way they look should we be prevented from adding them to the case? At the moment, this is where the law stands.
The addition of “social condition” as a prohibited ground could provide a more accurate picture of the basis of discrimination and a more holistic account of the ways in which social and economic disadvantage intersects with other forms of discrimination in both of these cases.
Those who are homeless or living in deep and chronic poverty are among the most vulnerable members of our society. Adding social condition to federal and provincial human rights codes will not, in and of itself, alleviate the economic hardship faced by this group, but it could shine a light on the impact that discrimination plays in intensifying the negative impacts of poverty. Effectively protecting the human rights of the people impacted by private security requires a clear declaration that it is not acceptable to discriminate against people based on their appearance. It would also impose on each of us a clear legal duty to treat everyone, regardless of income and social condition, with fairness and decency.