Hi, I’m Nina, the Anti-Stigma Campaigner at Pivot, and I’d like to introduce you to our newest campaign area. An anti-stigma campaign may sound like a broad topic, and, truth be told, it is, but throughout the last 20 years Pivot has held true to a few key beliefs across all of its campaign work: that stigma harms the most marginalized members of our society, especially through criminalization; that poverty isn’t inevitable; and that human rights are not negotiable.
Late July, the news of the shooting of several unhoused people by an armed citizen in Langley broke. Acts of violence, particularly state violence, against people living in poverty and people who rely on public space are not unheard of, but this day was a truly tragic reminder of the stigma that fuels the hatred and violence that we hold towards our most marginalized community members.
Our anti-stigma campaign grew out of our work on Project Inclusion, a province-wide review of how laws and policies harm and criminalize poor people. It also reflects Pivot’s commitment to keep fighting to stop stigma against substance users, unhoused people, and sex workers, within law and policy-making.
What is stigma?
Stigma is the negative judgment of a person or behaviour that results in discrimination and social exclusion, also known as, marginalization.
Stigmatizing beliefs result in discriminatory treatment by the community at large including individual citizens and policy-makers. Most harmfully, stigmatizing beliefs result in laws that criminalize entire communities, which, in worst case scenarios can ultimately lead to death, as we’ve seen as we enter our 7th crisis year of poisoned drugs and fatal overdoses across the country.
Admittedly, uncovering and addressing stigma can be a challenge because it is often invisible to people who don’t directly experience it. The systems and institutions that currently control Canada, rooted in colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy, are generally not held accountable for creating the conditions that force people into poverty. Stigma is particularly insidious because individuals who are assigned to stigmatized communities are also blamed for having ended up in their circumstances, supposedly by making poor decisions. In turn, these individuals are also assigned the responsibility of bringing themselves up out of the margins, with no help from others, absolving the state and community from supporting the people in our society who need our help the most. This results in the shunning and criminalization of entire communities of people which further perpetuates their socio-economic oppression and social exclusion.
Why do we have an anti-stigma campaign?
We have an anti-stigma campaign today because stigma affects millions of people belonging to the communities that we work alongside across our campaign areas; those being people engaged in sex work, particularly street-level sex work, people who use drugs and are criminalized as a result, and people who are criminalized for relying on public space to meet their needs for their living spaces, work, and shelter.
And these are not just campaigns. Stigma is a phenomenon with real life consequences for individuals, those individuals in turn belonging to huge communities who all experience the negative impacts of stigmatizing laws and policies, most harmful when they result in poverty, criminalization, incarceration, and death.
How can we fight stigma?
Addressing the consequences of stigmatizing beliefs within our legislative processes and policy makers will result in fewer laws that involve the violent institution of policing in the lives of people who need a safe drug supply, income security, and affordable, non-carceral housing.
We have a few ideas on how we can remove stigma from our law and policy-making practices in BC.
Adding Social Condition to the BC Human Rights Code
Since the late 1990’s, anti-poverty advocates have been campaigning to have ‘social condition’ added into the Canadian Human Rights Act and the BC Human Rights Code as a protected characteristic against discrimination the same way that a person’s age or ethnic background is protected.
Social condition is inclusion in a socially identifiable group that suffers social or economic disadvantages based on poverty, source of income, occupation, housing status, and education level. Inclusion in one of these socially identifiable groups leads to social exclusion, marginalization and criminalization.
Today, we continue the fight to enshrine protections in law for people who experience poverty and criminalization due to stigma. By adding social condition to the 'Code', BC would be joining one of several other provinces and territories in Canada that have committed to protecting the rights of people who live in poverty, including Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, New Brunswick, and Quebec.
People do not choose to live in poverty; people are forced into poverty by circumstances that they are ascribed, like race and class, and through circumstances that are imposed on them by forces beyond their control, like housing unaffordability and low-income assistance rates. By adding social condition to the 'Code' as a protected characteristic, the burden of improving one's life circumstances would be shifted off of individuals and onto the systems that themselves cause individuals to live in the circumstances of poverty, the very first of which was the colonization of so-called Canada by European settlers. The city of Vancouver is located on land that was stolen from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, yet poverty disproportionately affects Indigenous people in Vancouver and across Canada.
Living in poverty isn't currently a protected characteristic under the BC Human Rights Code but it is highly criminalized and impacts members of our society who are already marginalized. For this reason, our work at Pivot includes holding government officials and decision makers accountable for their actions when they harm people living on the margins of society through the creation of laws that impact people living in poverty and the use of criminalization and policing to uphold those laws. We are moving ahead with our work to review and audit the bylaws of municipalities across the province that target and criminalize people living in poverty, people who use drugs, people who are engaged in sex work, and people who rely on public space to meet their needs for work and shelter. We will use this audit to advocate for the addition of social condition into the BC Human Rights Code to end the social exclusion and criminalization of people living in poverty.
As we engage in the work of auditing stigmatizing bylaws we recognize that the violent and dehumanizing institution of policing exists to enforce those bylaws. This campaign naturally supports work to end the enforcement of stigmatizing laws, policies and bylaws and defunding the police so that survival behaviours are no longer criminalized.
Why Protect Social Condition through BC’s Human Rights Code?
The protection of a person’s social condition through the Human Rights Code would have to be taken into consideration every time new bylaws, policies, Acts, or any other types of legislation were passed, in order to ensure that the rights of people living in poverty were not violated by the creation of the new law. It would also apply to all existing laws, and require local and provincial governments to amend those laws and practices in order to protect people living in poverty.
Human Rights Code protections would also provide a means of redress with the Human Rights Tribunal for people who have experienced discriminationon the basis of poverty in BC where that option hasn’t previously existed.The addition of social condition would most directly impact the communities we serve at Pivot who rely on public space due to poverty, as the updated provincial legislation would affect existing municipal bylaws, and the creation of all new ones.
Some examples include:
Though a person’s legal source of income is currently protected under the BC Human Rights Code, it only applies to a person’s tenancy, and not in any other areas of their life, such as their access to public services. On top of this, illicit sources of income, which people living in poverty rely on, such as vending, panhandling, street-based sex work, the street-level sale of drugs, binning, and so on, and which all occur outdoors in public space, are not protected. Municipal bylaws are currently rife with bylaws prohibiting these forms of income generation, and these activities are highly criminalized due to their visibility in the public.
People sheltering in public space would also benefit from the addition of social condition to the Human Rights Code. These community members – whether sheltering in encampments, on sidewalks, or in other informal settings - could be protected from decampment efforts and street sweeps. Currently, anti-encampment policies enable ‘concerned’ citizens and municipal governments officials to target people sheltering in communities across BC, despite a continued lack of affordable, livable housing.
The addition of social condition would also create more equitable housing policy. Currently, people who cannot afford the private rental market are frequently forced into housing models (e.g. transition housing and “supportive” housing) which deny them the basic tenancy protections that other renters have.
For people who use drugs, zoning bylaws would need to be amended to protect supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention services against discriminatory municipal treatment, which includes high-barrier business license applications, re-zoning applications, and the public hearing process. Amendments would also be necessary to prevent police activities that interfere with harm reduction and the wellbeing of PWUD: for instance, where police loiter at harm reduction sites and investigate patrons, or where they target (through harassment or over-enforcement) unhoused people living in poverty in public. The ability to file unreasonable public complaints about public drug use would also need to be constrained: this we saw most recently in April of 2022 when Canada Post decided to remove their postal workers from a route through the DTES due to postal workers seeing open drug use on the street.
Bylaws regarding the use of public space and loitering by street-based sex workers would need to be reversed with the protection of a person’s social condition, and zoning bylaws would be similarly impacted, such as the zoning processes that currently prohibit business owners from legally operating in the regulated sex trade.
We’ve been working with community organizers, peers and people with lived experience, human rights lawyers and activists, and other non-profit organizations doing similar work for decades. They all recognize that addressing stigma is part of the solution to ending discriminatory policies and bylaws that harm already marginalized communities. We hope our collective work results in the protection of a person’s social condition by the BC’s Human Rights Code, so that communities will no longer be harmed by policies that target them specifically for engaging in the work and behaviours that help them survive poverty. We will continue this work until no one is put in jail for being Indigenous, for having mental health issues, for not having a home to live in, for using drugs, or for having a disability. We will continue this work until everyone has safe, clean housing, food on the table, their harm reduction supplies, a safe place to work, and a community that loves them.
 Ending discrimination on the basis of social condition: The next frontier in the fight for affordable housing, Darcie Bennett December 19, 2017, https://www.pivotlegal.org/ending_discrimination_of_the_basis_of_social_condition_the_next_frontier_in_the_fight_for_affordable_housing
 Adding “social condition” as a protected ground to B.C.’s Human Rights Code. BCHRC, May 2020, https://bchumanrights.ca/publications/social-condition/
 Adding Social Condition to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Wayne MacKay and Natasha Kim February 2009, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/ccdp-chrc/HR4-14-2009-eng.pdf
 Province of British Columbia. A human rights commission for the 21st century: British Columbians talk about Human Rights: A report and recommendations to the Attorney General of British Columbia. Victoria, B.C.: 2017, https://engage.gov.bc.ca/app/uploads/sites/121/2017/12/HRC-Final-Report.pdf
 Justice Canada, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel chaired by Justice La Forest. Promoting Equality: A New Vision. Ottawa, Ontario: Justice Canada. 2000, http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/J2-168-2000E.pdf