What good is equality law if it doesn’t offer meaningful protection to those who experience the most discrimination and marginalization in our society? This week, West Coast LEAF is at the BC Court of Appeal in coalition with the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) speaking out for homeless people’s right to access justice under the BC Human Rights Code.
The Human Rights Code promotes substantive equality by having regard for individual and group needs, life circumstances and experiences of systemic injustice, not merely by treating everybody identically. The Code offers recourse in situations where individuals or groups are being unfairly disadvantaged because of who they are. And West Coast LEAF strongly believes that unfair disadvantage based on identity is at play in the case currently before the BC Court of Appeal, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users v Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA).
This case centres on a claim that the DVBIA’s Downtown Ambassadors Program violated the Human Rights Code by systemically harassing and removing homeless people from public spaces in downtown Vancouver– homeless people, who are disproportionately Indigenous, people with disabilities such as serious mental health issues, and people with addictions.
At issue now is what evidence must be present to show discrimination, with the DVBIA and the City of Vancouver arguing that there was not enough evidence to show that the removals were based on grounds protected under human rights law. We say that the burden of evidence cannot be so high as to exclude our most disenfranchised people – what is human rights law for, if not to protect the most vulnerable among us? This case has implications beyond the particular claimants before the court. It raises concerns for all claimants seeking equal protection of the law, including women and girls.
In April 2015, West Coast LEAF and CLAS intervened jointly in this case at the BC Supreme Court to argue that the evidence required to establish discrimination under the law must take into account people’s lived realities and not create needless, additional barriers to accessing justice. For example, homeless people should not necessarily be required to testify in court when adequate statistical evidence will demonstrate that they were disproportionately targeted – and disproportionately harmed – by the removals. The BC Supreme Court agreed with our arguments.
On October 5-6, the BC Court of Appeal will hear the appeal of the lower court’s decision. Once again, West Coast LEAF and CLAS are in court to defend homeless people’s right to equal protection and to advocate in favour of a flexible approach to evidence of discrimination that makes justice more accessible to all.
West Coast LEAF was founded with the goal of ensuring that the law’s equality rights protections would translate into concrete improvements in the lives of women, including those who experience the greatest obstacles to accessing justice. More than three decades later, we have not lost sight of the promise of human rights law or of our responsibility to fight to make sure its promise is realized.