Project Inclusion: Making Stigma Visible

Between March and October 2017, Pivot travelled to ten communities across the province to interview people impacted by the intersection of BC’s housing and drug policy crises. Participants’ stories brought the human toll of these crises to light and helped us better understand where our laws, policies, and collective belief systems are failing us. They also provided critical insight into how we might begin to chart a path for building healthy and inclusive communities throughout BC.

When we embarked on this project, our goal was to connect with people experiencing homelessness and people who are criminalized as a result of poverty and substance use in order to develop a grounded understanding of the laws, policies, and practices that intensify harm and undermine public health.

Through our conversations with Project Inclusion participants, we learned about the frequency and nature of interactions between people who live in public space and police, bylaw officers, and private security. We came to understand the role court-imposed conditions play in shaping the lives of people who took part in this study and came to understand some of the barriers people face in accessing income assistance, shelter, and health care.

We make many specific policy recommendations, but improving the health, safety, and well-being of people who took part in this project and the broader communities in which they live will take more than changing the individual laws, policies, and practices. It will require that we address the mechanism that underlies the experiences and issues raised through this project: stigma.

Stigma is generally understood as a problem of individual beliefs and attitudes. There is inherent value in identifying stigmatizing beliefs and values that we hold and in taking steps to change them. However, those efforts are often seen as distinct from law and policy reform work. Project Inclusion participants helped us understand how stigma informs what is defined as a legal or governance problem and how it drives what makes it onto the legislative agenda.

Making stigma visible is integral to shifting laws, policies, and decision-making practices that create and intensify harms such as ill health, opioid-related deaths, and homelessness.

Stigma is often so deeply embedded in our cultural context that we don’t see it. It is only after significant advocacy and collective resistance, often undertaken at great personal risk by people who are most profoundly affected, that stigma becomes visible. We need a systematic way for policymakers and advocates to identify stigma embedded in existing laws, policies, and decision-making practices. We also need a way to pre-emptively identify situations where stigma is informing policy development or driving the legislative agenda.

Auditing for Stigma

Stigma entails problems of knowledge, problems of attitude, and problems of behaviour. We are interested in systematically identifying places where problems of knowledge and attitude—embedded in a context of unequal power relations—impact law and policy-making behaviour.

Auditing for stigma must be more than a semantic exercise. It is not just about looking for labels that are overtly problematic or discriminatory and removing them from legislation and policy. It is also more than simply auditing for compliance with human rights and Charter law, although that should certainly be an element of the process.

Auditing for stigma is about identifying underlying labels and associated knowledge gaps, misinformation, and prejudices that are driving a policy agenda and leading to policy outcomes that intensify disadvantage for people with stigmatized characteristics while failing to improve public health or safety. We have identified some key questions that would be central to such a process.

1. Is there a stigmatizing label at play?

In her 2017 book, Discrimination as Stigma: A Theory of Anti-Discrimination Law, Dr. Iyiola Solanke conceptualizes stigma as a “mark” and lays out a series of ten questions to determine whether a particular characteristic is “marked” by stigma in a particular context. In order to determine whether stigma is driving a policy discussion or legislative proposal, we need to be able to determine that there is a “marked” population that the law or policy is meant to regulate or exclude. In some cases this may be obvious, in other cases it may be more difficult to identify.

Read Part 3, "Making Stigma Visible – Why a Stigma-Auditing Process Matters for BC", for a full discussion of Dr. Solanke’s ten questions.

2. Are there stereotypes, misinformation, and untested theories of causation at work?

The fact that a law, either overtly or in practice, acts upon a specifically labelled group is not necessarily indicative of stigma. For example, laws such as the graduated licensing program for new drivers are intended to act upon a specific group: teenagers/young adults (even though older adults may be affected). Laws and policies are likely not based in stigma if they are:

  • grounded in solid evidence rather than stereotypes or folk wisdom;
  • rationally connected to a legitimate policy objective; and
  • written and enforced in a way that is respectful of human rights and does not place unreasonable or unfair restrictions on a labelled group that lacks social, economic, legal, and political power.

It is important to look for contextual information to better understand the ideologies, beliefs, and evidence that informed the law, regulation, or government action by asking the following:

  • Is there a faulty or unsupportable assumption about the “labelled” group at work?
  • Is there a faulty or unsupportable assumption made about the “problem” this population has been connected to that is underlying this law or policy?
  • What evidence was relied on in making the decision in question?
  • What evidence was excluded or ignored in making the decision?

Sometimes, the knowledge gaps that inform law and policy are immediately evident. In other cases, the beliefs are so pervasive that they are effectively invisible. Behaviours that result from homelessness, such as belongings being stored in vacant lots or people relieving themselves in public, are often conceptualized as being due to the character and innate attributes of people experiencing homelessness rather than as natural results of the fact of homelessness.

This results in punitive policy solutions that actually work at cross-purposes with the outcomes the community actually wants; therefore, a stigma-auditing tool needs a mechanism for determining what evidence has been considered in coming to a policy or legislative decision, and a method by which to weigh the completeness and credibility of that evidence.

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The Path Forward

Identifying places where stigma is driving law and policy is not about preventing governments from addressing governance challenges. It is about reframing discussions in order to create policies that reduce social exclusion, promote public health, and increase safety for everyone.

Stigma-based policy is the antithesis of evidence-based policy. It leads to outcomes that are harmful and even fatal. BC needs a process for systematically identifying and addressing situations where stigma has become codified in law. This will require significant engagement with the people and communities most impacted by stigma as well as the creation of training and tools for policymakers and advocates.

To find out more about how stigma shapes law and policy, read “Making Stigma Visible – Why a Stigma-Auditing Process Matters for BC” or download the full report.

 

Core to Project Inclusion are our recommendations to provincial and federal politicians and law makers. Pivot is committed to fighting for these recommendations to become enshrined in law, but we need your help to carry out this work. By making a gift to Pivot Legal Society today, you’ll help ensure that our advocacy can continue and that we can hold lawmakers accountable for their actions and policies.