Release: Discrimination case against street homeless puts equal protection to the test

VANCOUVER – Today, West Coast LEAF in coalition with the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) is at the BC Court of Appeal (BCCA) in an appeal concerning discrimination against Vancouver’s street homeless population. The appeal, brought by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) and the City of Vancouver (COV), seeks to overturn a finding that the Downtown Ambassadors private security program’s targeted and repeated removal of homeless persons from public spaces in downtown Vancouver constituted discrimination under the BC Human Rights Code.

West Coast LEAF and CLAS are intervening in the case, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users v. DVBIA and COV, to argue that evidentiary requirements to show discrimination under the BC Human Rights Code must not themselves create additional barriers to accessing justice for populations facing historic disadvantage and marginalization. In this case, the BC Supreme Court found that the DVBIA’s Downtown Ambassadors program negatively affected Vancouver’s street homeless population, a group disproportionately made up of Indigenous persons and persons with disabilities. The Court found that the group was partially being targeted because they were disproportionately Indigenous and disabled, and that this amounted to discrimination under human rights law.

“People of Indigenous ancestry and people with disabilities, including those with addictions, are vastly overrepresented in Vancouver’s homeless population. We know that these individuals already face multiple, intersecting barriers to equal protection under the law,” says Raji Mangat, Director of Litigation at West Coast LEAF. “What value does the law have if it isn’t available to safeguard the human rights of the most marginalized among us? The Human Rights Code must not itself add to the already high burdens placed on people in such circumstances to secure protection for their human rights.”

Moreover, we argue that courts should be flexible about what evidence will show that protected grounds (such as Indigeneity or disability status) played a part in the negative treatment experienced by the group. In some cases, statistical evidence alone may be enough to show that discrimination took place. In others, a representative claim brought on behalf of a transient, vulnerable population may not require evidence from individual members of that group to succeed.

“The implications of this case go well beyond the particular claimants before the court,” says Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF. “The court’s decision on evidence will apply to all historically disadvantaged individuals and groups who claim discrimination, including women and girls. This is especially so for many gender-based human rights claims where the law actually has a disproportionate and negative impact on one group even though it looks like it treats everyone alike.”

Read West Coast LEAF’s argument in this case.