How BC's majority government can enshrine human rights protections for people living in poverty


Today, International Human Rights Day, the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition and Pivot Legal Society are renewing our calls for an amendment to the BC Human Rights Code to include protections based on social condition.

Meenakshi Mannoe, Criminalization & Policing Campaigner, Pivot Legal Society
Viveca Ellis, Interim Community Organizer, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition


Photo credit for images on this page: Priscillia Tate | DTES | June 5, 2020

The newly elected BC government has the opportunity to enshrine human rights protections for people living in poverty. In the Attorney General mandate letter, Premier John Horgan directs both the AG David Eby and Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives Rachna Singh to work with B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner and stakeholders to “introduce legislation that will help reduce systemic discrimination.”

Implementing protections for people based on social condition will reduce systemic discrimination within BC.

Less than two months ago, BC’s provincial election put the spotlight on poverty - but for all the wrong reasons. In October, candidates took on poverty as a talking point, and some made it their business to demean, dehumanize and dismiss the lived/living realities of people who experience homelessness.  As anti-poverty advocates, our organizations were closely watching provincial platforms, in search of robust strategies designed to combat poverty.

We have seen municipalities design homegrown solutions that rely on law enforcement, institutionalization, and interventions designed to disappear social problems rather than resolve them

Unfortunately, tent cities, “public disorder,” and the survival of people who rely on public space remain polarizing topics throughout BC. In the midst of a global pandemic, where people living in poverty are recognized as uniquely vulnerable, Premier John Horgan has chastised municipalities, telling them to step up and enforce local anti-camping bylaws. In April, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth authorized an emergency order that led to the evacuation of three encampments. At the municipal level, without guidance from peer knowledge and human rights, we have seen municipalities design homegrown solutions that rely on law enforcement, institutionalization, and interventions designed to disappear social problems rather than resolve them.  Public statements, party platforms, and proposed solutions from the government perpetuate anti-substance use and anti-homelessness stigma.

Solutions that come from the notion that people who use substances and experience homelessness must be surveilled, policed and institutionalized do not work. We see this when Mayors recommend large-scale institutionalization of anyone with substance use or mental health issues, or when cities move homeless communities so they are out of sight and out of mind. We see this when police design a new team that effectively criminalizes anyone living on the street. Stigma and bias remain embedded in how communities and politicians alike are responding to poverty. We need policy-makers to actually talk to people experiencing poverty, substance use, and/or homelessness.

We are calling on the provincial government to enact protections for people living in poverty, and design systems and services to address inequality

The BC Poverty Reduction Coalition and Pivot are now advocating for an amendment to the BC Human Rights Code which would enshrine protections based on social condition. We’ve made this call before, in the Blueprint for Justice and Project Inclusion. We are calling on the provincial government to enact protections for people living in poverty, and design systems and services to address inequality.

Our last provincial government made history when it introduced B.C.’s first poverty reduction strategy in 2018, Together BC, and in 2019 with the appointment of the first independent Human Rights Commissioner in 2019. We are looking to the next provincial government to take the concrete step of amending the BC Human Rights Code to include social condition, as a top and immediate priority. We recommend the provincial government commit to human rights and start by listening to frontline communities across the province.

Dual public health emergencies have shaped 2020, and both of them highlight how social inequity is a basic determinant of health. This week, we learned that the provincial government has slashed the benefits available to people who rely on income and disability assistance, by cutting a $300 monthly COVID-19 crisis supplement in half, beginning in January 2021. In addition to protecting people from discrimination based on “social condition,” we also affirm the work of groups such as 300 To Live, and call on the BC Government to maintain the $300 monthly crisis supplement and ensure disability and income assistance rates reflect do not condemn people to living in poverty. Reducing systemic discrimination requires law, policy and material changes that benefit directly-impacted communities.

Reducing systemic discrimination requires law, policy and material changes that benefit directly-impacted communities

We must raise the bar and demand the elimination of anti-poor discrimination and the outright eradication of poverty and stigma. While human rights protections alone cannot prevent discrimination, they are a tool that enables advocates to begin dismantling anti-poor laws, policies, and rhetoric.


Key Documents

Blueprint for Justice (2020)
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition

The BCPRC Blueprint for Justice is based on four principles that shape our recommendations to Government: Economic Security, Universal Basic Services, Equity, and Climate Justice. A foundation has been laid and progress has been made, but we have only just begun. We have much more to accomplish to ensure that every person in B.C. attains a dignified, decent, and just life.

https://www.bcpovertyreduction.ca/full-blueprint

Poverty kills: Why it’s time to add “social condition” to BC’s human rights law (2020)
BC Human Rights Clinic

BC’s human rights legislation is meant to protect us from discrimination. However, the law contains a glaring gap. BC’s human rights law does not protect people from discrimination because they are poor. Poverty, or what some other provinces call “social condition” in their human rights legislation, is not a prohibited ground of discrimination in BC’s Human Rights Code.

https://bchrc.net/poverty-kills-why-its-time-to-add-social-condition-to-bcs-human-rights-law/

Social Condition Position Paper (2019)
Pivot Legal Society

People experiencing some combination of low-income status, homelessness or precarious housing, reliance on government income support programs, unemployment or under-employment, and limited education face impediments to participation in economic, social, political, and cultural life.

https://www.pivotlegal.org/social_condition

Why a Stigma-Auditing Process Matters for BC (2018)
Pivot Legal Society

As part of our in-depth interviews for Project Inclusion, we found one thing connecting and driving the experiences of all study participants and the laws and policies discussed in this report: stigma. 

https://www.pivotlegal.org/project_inclusion_stigma

Social and Economic Condition
Ontario Human Rights Commission

It is clear that one’s social and economic condition has a direct bearing on the likelihood of one becoming homeless. For example, those living in poverty are at a greater risk of not being able to secure affordable housing or of not being able to make the rent payments for the housing that they do have.

http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/human-rights-and-rental-housing-ontario-background-paper/social-and-economic-condition

Housing Justice for all.