Systemic discrimination has ‘deep roots in our laws and systems’: B.C. human rights commissioner

  • June 22, 2023

By Ian Burns for Law360

British Columbia is reaching out to the public as it seeks to identify and address systemic racism in government services.

The province is saying that information collected through the recently launched B.C. Demographic Survey will help British Columbia to “deliver stronger, more accessible and more inclusive programs and services for everyone.” The survey was created through engagement with Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities, and includes questions related to race, ethnicity, ancestry and other areas of identity.

“Everyone deserves equitable access to the supports they need,” said provincial Attorney General Niki Sharma. “We need to understand how systemic racism shows up in government services through data collection. The survey will help us identify data gaps so that we can improve access to government programs and services for everyone.”

The information gathered will enable anti-racism research on the 12 priorities brought forward by Indigenous peoples and the provincial Anti-Racism Data Committee, which were released May 29. The Anti-Racism Data Act (ARDA), which came into effect in June 2022, enables the safe collection and use of personal information for the purposes of identifying and eliminating systemic racism and advancing racial equity. The Act requires British Columbia to establish and publish research priorities every two years, and annually release statistics or other information related to systemic racism and racial equity.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington, an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, said systemic racism is a concept that helps individuals to talk about what contributes to the maintenance of racial inequality in society, despite “for the most part” the absence of intentionally discriminatory legislation.

“If you look at race in terms of incarceration or policing you see lots of different forms of racial and gender inequality, and a systemic lens is what helps us understand that,” he said. “But it is not because politicians are necessarily going out of their way to target certain communities. It is a way of seeing persisting forms of social hierarchy.”

Aleem Bharmal, president of the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) said any data collection needs to reflect the experiences of disadvantaged communities.

“We now know some shocking stats, so knowing what the problem is and where it is occurring would allow the government and other agencies to respond more effectively,” said Bharmal, who is a lawyer with the B.C. Human Rights Clinic at Vancouver’s Community Legal Assistance Society. “From CBABC’s perspective, the province needs to expand the use of disaggregated data to more government services in areas such as the courts and applications for legal funding, and they need to ensure that all of their staff are given relevant equity, diversion and inclusion (EDI) training.”

B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender said systemic discrimination has “deep roots in our laws and systems in B.C.” and continues to result in racial and other inequalities across sectors, including in health care, policing, corrections and child welfare.

“In 2020, my office called on the government to collect and use disaggregated demographic data where it can be used to make systemic inequalities visible,” she said. “When collected responsibly in collaboration with community, this data can reflect lived experiences by highlighting inequitable access to resources, power and opportunities based on the impact of racism, sexism, ableism and other similar forces.”

But Govender warned that data collection “is not an end in itself.”

“It needs to inform the public policies and laws designed to promote equity. The collection of data [under ARDA] is an important step towards ensuring that our public policy decisions are rooted in the evidence — particularly evidence about how laws, policies and services impact different groups differently,” she said. “For example, when we can see clearly how certain policing practices such as arrests, police stops and mental health checks impact Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities disproportionately — in other words, significantly more than their presence in the population would predict — then the path towards addressing those inequities also becomes clearer.”

Sealy-Harrington said data is necessary in order to talk about systemic disparities but added “the idea that in 2023 we simply suffer from a data problem with respect to Black and Indigenous inequality would be quite naïve.”

“In B.C. there are tons of disparities experienced by Indigenous communities, and data is helpful in terms of diagnosing the precise manifestation of the disparity,” he said. “But if we are talking about access to housing, inequitable health care treatment or child apprehension, is the issue really data about these phenomena or is the issue political will? What we choose to do, and where we are choosing to spend our money, is something that B.C. — and other provincial governments — need to grapple with. And time and again Canadian governments have been loath to invest resources proactively in the communities they have neglected for centuries.”