B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner will examine the rise of hate during the pandemic as the topic of its first public inquiry, says Commissioner Kasari Govender.
“Our intent is to examine hate in all its forms,” Govender said at an online press conference this morning.
“Not only racism and racial hate, but hate directed at a wide range of people and groups in our society who are protected under B.C.’s Human Rights Code and under international human rights law. For example, hate that is perpetuated against a person or a group on the basis of their religion, their gender identity, their Indigeneity, their sexual orientation or whether they live in poverty or without a home.”
Govender started her five-year term as B.C.’s first independent Human Rights Commissioner in September 2019.
The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner has a mandate to “address the root causes of inequality, discrimination and injustice in B.C. by shifting laws, policies, practices and cultures … through education, research, advocacy, inquiry and monitoring.”
For its first inquiry, the office is focusing on hate “because of a significant increase in hate-related incidents, including online incidents, in B.C. since the start of the pandemic in early 2020,” says Govender.
“Many of us are uncomfortable acknowledging hate because we want to think of our country as a peaceful, respectful place, but the truth is that hate is here and from all accounts, it is growing.”
She refers specifically to the rise of hate crimes against Asian and Indigenous Peoples.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been more than 1,500 incidents of anti-Asian racism reported to elimin8hate.org and covidracism.ca, and B.C. continues to report the most incidents per capita in North America,” she says.
“In 2020, police-reported hate crimes in Canada targeting Indigenous Peoples increased 152 per cent compared to 2019.”
As wildfires rage throughout the province and the world struggles to contain the pandemic and navigate humanitarian crises, Govender says tackling hate should be a top priority.
“Hate often stems from a fear of losing power, a fear that is aggravated during times of great uncertainty.
“While COVID-19 has inflamed the problems of hate and white supremacy in B.C., it did not create them … It is precisely when our societies, homes and families are most under threat that human rights are most precarious and require the most support.”
Through this inquiry, the commissioner will look into the “kinds of hate individuals and communities in B.C. experienced during the pandemic,” and the impacts of those incidents.
Govender says she wants to know how we can “address, eliminate or prevent hate incidents during times of crisis and beyond.” She’s asking: “How effectively have public and private institutions responded to hate during the pandemic, and how effective is our public policy and law in addressing hate?”
She says the inquiry will begin gathering public testimonies — through surveys, written submissions, emails, phone calls and roundtables — later this fall, after the federal election.
Govender has a background in practicing and teaching law and she previously served as executive director for West Coast LEAF, a non-profit organization that uses law as a tool to challenge gender-based discrimination.
She says how the commission conducts the inquiry is just as important as any potential outcomes. Her team has already consulted with 23 different community groups, she says, and they will continue seeking guidance from community partners throughout their process.
“We recognize that the topic of hate, while critical to examine, is an extremely challenging subject, especially for people who have experienced hate themselves.
“In order to mitigate risk to the physical and emotional safety of those providing their stories, we will not be conducting public hearings … We are putting safeguards in place to protect participants and their testimony and to shield them as much as possible from harm,” she says.
“We will also provide referrals to crisis resources and mental health supports.”
What kind of changes could come from this?
After gathering testimonies, the commissioner will make change recommendations, which could be aimed at private or public institutions.
For example, “if people want to bring testimony about their experiences within the workplace, we may be making recommendations to employers about how to address hate in that context or to service providers,” she says.
“We could [also] be making recommendations on law and policy reform to governments.”
While the commissioner doesn’t “have power under the legislation to make recommendations that are legally binding,” she can require parties to report back, she says.
“I do think there is significant potential impact in requiring parties who I make recommendations to to report back, and of course, I can make that public and add to potential pressure they may feel to actually implement the recommendations.”
‘A step forward’ — as long as it builds on existing recommendations
Henry Yu is an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia with a deep record of anti-racist research and work.
Last year, he contributed to a report about collecting race-based data (and other disaggregated demographic data) by the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, which was published in September 2020.
The report spelled out the need for race-based data and made recommendations around how to collect, store and share it in a good way.
Yu says he sees this new public inquiry as “a step forward” only if it doesn’t slow the implementation of existing recommendations around race-based data collection.
“I hope that those recommendations that were made on that are not delayed by this.”
Too often the burden falls on those impacted by systemic racism to prove it exists, he says.
For example, he says the reason we know about “these huge spikes” in anti-Asian hate crimes is because of grassroots initiatives like Project 1907 — a project led by Asian women — which collaborated with Elimin8Hate to create a space where members of the Asian diaspora in Canada can report incidents of racism, hate and violence.
“Why is it that the community that’s being attacked has to do their own data collection and prove that this is happening to them?” he asks.
“Can we not just have to spend half our effort convincing you that there’s racism, and that this happens? And can we not have to deal with your surprise or shock?
“That’s where the data is crucial.”