Yesterday, the BC Court of Appeal (BCCA) released its judgment in a case concerning discrimination against Vancouver’s street homeless population. Unfortunately, the Court upheld the 2012 dismissal of the human rights complaint brought on behalf of homeless people in the downtown core.

West Coast LEAF was at the BCCA to draw the Court’s attention to the broader implications of the case.  We believe that public space belongs to all of us, equally. And we believe that the protections of human rights law must extend to all those who are systematically marginalized.

The complaint was originally brought in 2010 to the BC Human Rights Tribunal by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) on behalf of street homeless people who had been repeatedly harassed and removed from public spaces in the downtown core by the Downtown Ambassadors, a private security program operated by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA).

While it may seem obvious that this conduct was discriminatory, the law in BC does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of homelessness. The complaint alleged that the Ambassadors’ practice was discriminatory because street homeless people, as a group, are disproportionately made up of Indigenous and disabled persons, statuses that are protected under the BC Human Rights Code (the Code).

In its long-awaited decision, the BCCA upheld the Tribunal’s decision to dismiss VANDU’s complaint. The Court unanimously found that, while the actions of the Downtown Ambassadors had harmed the street homeless population and that Indigenous and disabled persons are over-represented in the street homeless population, that the evidence presented was not enough to show that being Indigenous or disabled was a factor in the harmful treatment experienced to be considered discrimination under the Code.

West Coast LEAF intervened in the case in coalition with the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) at both the BCSC and BCCA levels to highlight the impact of harassment, removals, and exclusions on the marginalized population of street homeless in Vancouver.  We argued that the disproportionate impact of the removals on Indigenous people and people with disabilities was sufficient to invoke the protection of human rights law.

We pressed the need for a flexible and contextual approach to proving discrimination in human rights law. If the law doesn’t provide protections to those who experience the most marginalization and discrimination in our society, then justice isn’t equally accessible to all.

It is clear from the data before the Tribunal and the courts that the Downtown Ambassadors’ practice of removing disproportionately Indigenous and disabled people from public spaces harms the very people the Human Rights Code is intended to protect. This decision leaves Vancouver’s street homeless population no closer to being protected from discrimination.

Yesterday’s judgment leaves open the possibility that, in a future case, the type of treatment experienced by the homeless population in this case may be regarded as discriminatory under human rights law.

West Coast LEAF will continue to work towards the goal of ensuring that the law’s equality rights protections translate into concrete improvements in the lives of all women and marginalized people, and to realizing the promise of human rights law.