Lawyers with the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline Join Calls for Day of Remembrance for Mosque Attack

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER, BC – Lawyers with the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline are joining other groups across Canada to call on the federal government to designate January 29th as a “National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia.” January 29th is the anniversary of the 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque by a far-right extremist that left six Muslim men dead and 19 others wounded.

In 2016, nine legal organizations and several concerned individual lawyers came together to launch the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline. The Hotline provides people who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim and who have experienced discrimination with free, confidential legal advice and information. The number is 604-343-3828. Members of the public can learn more about the service on the Islamophobia Hotline website at www.islamophobiahotline.ca

“The January 29th mosque attack is part of a larger—and escalating— pattern of bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in Canada,” said Zool Suleman, a Vancouver lawyer who volunteers with the hotline. “As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.”

“Islamophobia can be experienced in many different ways,” said Sarah Khan, staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “We have heard reports of harassment, violent attacks, racial profiling, property destruction and threats. Islamophobia affects everyday Canadians as they go about their lives, their schooling and their work. As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.”

“We want to empower people to respond to this discrimination by making legal support more readily available,” said Aleem Bharmal, “Many people who experience this sort of discrimination might not even know that there may be legal options available to respond, depending on what happened, such as filing a discrimination complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. We want to make sure people can get the legal advice and assistance that they need.”

“Discrimination against Muslims, and people perceived to be Muslims, is an intolerable and ongoing reality in Canada,” said Hasan Alam, a Vancouver lawyer who volunteers with the hotline. “It’s important to make sure that people who experience this hateful treatment can access help, which could include filing a complaint or contacting the authorities.”

The hotline was launched with the support of Access Pro Bono Society, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Community Legal Assistance Society, the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, Western Chapter, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers – BC, and the South Asian Bar Association of BC.

For more information, please contact:

Hasan Alam             778-995-6786
Aleem Bharmal       604-673-3126
Sarah Khan              604-687-3063
Zool Suleman          604-685-8472

Okanagan Valley Association of the Deaf Files Human Rights Complaint Against St. John Ambulance  

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER, B.C. – On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, the Okanagan Valley Association of the Deaf (“OVAD”) filed a human rights complaint against St. John Ambulance for refusing to provide Sign language interpretation for Deaf students in its first aid courses.

OVAD says that St. John Ambulance is not meeting its duty to accommodate Deaf students, and is filing the complaint on behalf of all Deaf British Columbians who have experienced harm from this absence of accommodation.

First aid training and certification provide British Columbians with career advancement opportunities and, most importantly, the ability to help others and save lives in an emergency. Denying Deaf British Columbians equal access to first aid training and certification therefore limits their full participation and inclusion in our communities.

Gordon Rattray, OVAD Treasurer, stated: “OVAD took on this case because enough is enough. Deaf people need first aid skills just like everyone else. This could be a matter of life or death in an emergency situation.”

“We are thrilled that OVAD is pursuing this human rights complaint on behalf of Deaf people across British Columbia. The inaccessibility of St. John Ambulance classes has long been a source of frustration and pain in our community,” said Kimberly Wood, the President of the Greater Vancouver Association of the Deaf (GVAD).

Kate Feeney, the lawyer representing OVAD, stated: “Deaf individuals have a right to Sign language interpretation when accessing both public and private services, except where it causes undue hardship. It is therefore our view that St. John Ambulance – one of the largest and most recognized providers of commercial first aid training in Canada – is required to provide Sign language interpretation to Deaf students.”

For more information, please contact:

Kate Feeney
BCPIAC Staff Lawyer
Ph: 604-506-9271           

Gordon Rattray
Treasurer, OVAD
Email: gords@shaw.ca     

Kimberly Wood
President, GVAD
Email: gvadpresident@gmail.com

OVAD v SJA Media Backgrounder

Canadian Association of the Deaf Guide on Terminology

Human Rights Leaders Share Common Vision for BC Human Rights Commission

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

 

Org-Logos Human Rights Leaders Share Common Vision for BC Human Rights Commission

Human Rights Leaders Share Common Vision for BC Human Rights Commission

VANCOUVER, B.C. – On November 17, 2017, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office (CCPA-BC), the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), the Poverty and Human Rights Centre, and West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF) made submissions to the government in support of a common vision for the BC Human Rights Commission (Commission).

We are calling on the government to grant the Commission a broad mandate to combat systemic discrimination throughout BC, enforce human rights protections under the Human Rights Code and under international law, and work with Indigenous communities to advance reconciliation and address the continuing legacy of colonialism. In order for the Commission to carry out its mandate, our collective recommendations include:

  • Independence: The Chief Commissioner should be an officer of the Legislature to ensure that the Commission is independent from government;
  • Empowerment: The Commission must be empowered to promote awareness, understanding  and respect for and compliance with the BC Human Rights Code through public education, research, strategic litigation, and conducting inquiries and investigations;
  • Accessibility: The Commission must be accessible to individuals and communities throughout BC, in particular those who experience ongoing marginalization.

“The Commission must work proactively to prevent discrimination,” stated CLAS human rights lawyer France Kelly. “For example, it must engage in broad education activities in order to inform and educate employers, landlords, and service-providers about how to implement policies and practices that promote human rights.”

Seth Klein, Director of CCPA-BC added that, “The Commission must be given a strong mandate to broadly advance human rights as understood and articulated in all international United Nations covenants and declarations, including the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

“The government should take this opportunity to amend the Human Rights Code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of social condition,” stated Kasari Govender, the Executive Director of West Coast LEAF. “This will ensure that human rights protections extend to those experiencing vulnerability on the basis of employment status, source or level of income, housing status (including homelessness), and level of education.”

Sarah Khan, a staff lawyer with BCPIAC, added that “It bodes well that the government has engaged in such a broad consultation about the new Commission. We are hopeful that the Commission will be independent from government and properly resourced so that it can carry out its important work.”

Media Contacts

Kasari Govender, Executive Director, West Coast LEAF
604-684-8772 exec@westcoastleaf.org

Sarah Khan, Staff Lawyer, BCPIAC
604-687-4134 skhan@bcpiac.com

Aleem Bharmal, Executive Director, CLAS
604-673-3126, abharmal@clasbc.net

Seth Klein, BC Director, CCPA-BC
604-801-5121 seth@policyalternatives.ca

Gwen Brodsky, Lawyer, Poverty and Human Rights Centre
604-875-9211 brodsky@brodskylaw.ca

Constitutional challenge to inadequate legal aid services launched today

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER – Today, West Coast LEAF and the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) announce a constitutional challenge against the Province of BC and the Legal Services Society for their failure to provide adequate family law legal aid to women fleeing violent relationships. The case is brought on behalf of Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC and two individual women, Nicole Bell and A.B., whose safety, well-being, and relationships with their children have been threatened by the lack of legal aid services available to them in their family law disputes.

In BC, legal aid services in family law are drastically underfunded, having been cut by 60% between 2002 and 2005. Family legal aid is now almost exclusively available to extremely low income people fleeing violent relationships; even then, there are highly restrictive caps on the hours of legal service provided. This leaves many British Columbians going through divorce and custody battles without a lawyer, even in situations of extreme family violence. Since women are statistically lower income earners and more likely to experience spousal violence than men, this reality leaves women and their children particularly vulnerable as they try to navigate the complex justice system without assistance.

Family law is only as good as your ability to enforce it.

Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF

The case launched today alleges that the Province has a constitutional responsibility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide access to the justice system for women fleeing violent relationships or dealing with ongoing situations of abuse from ex-spouses. The plaintiffs will argue that the legal aid scheme – and the discretion exercised under the scheme by the Legal Services Society, which administers legal aid – discriminates against women and children and violates their rights to life and security of the person by putting them at further risk of violence and intense stress.

“Canada and BC have a world class justice system and progressive family laws,” says Kasari Govender, Executive Director of West Coast LEAF. “But if you cannot afford a lawyer, all of those legal protections are meaningless. Family law is only as good as your ability to enforce it, and the drastic cuts to legal aid over the last 15 years have left enforcement out of reach for most British Columbians, particularly women. The costs to the justice system of accommodating unrepresented litigants, and the costs to the state in providing health care, housing and social assistance to those with unresolved family law problems, are high – the human costs to women and children are much higher.”

The chronic underfunding of legal aid for over a decade has caused harm to many British Columbian families.

Kate Feeney, Staff lawyer at BCPIAC

“When a person working full time for minimum wage does not even qualify for legal aid because their income is deemed ‘too high,’ we know something is deeply wrong with our system,” says Kate Feeney, staff lawyer at BCPIAC. “The current structure of legal aid means that most women have to represent themselves in highly complex family law proceedings. This includes having to cross examine an abusive former spouse on the stand – or even worse, having to give up their legal rights and the rights of their children because they don’t have a lawyer to represent them. The chronic underfunding of legal aid for over a decade has caused harm to many British Columbian families.”

Debbie Henry is a board member and spokesperson for Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC, a grassroots non-profit organization by and for single mothers and one of the plaintiffs in the case. Henry says, “We have heard loud and clear from women in BC that legal aid – or the lack thereof – has played a significant role in their lives and the lives of their children. Without access to a publicly funded lawyer, many women in poverty are not able to get the adequate representation they need to resolve their complex cases, involving child custody issues and protection orders, and must navigate the system in fear and at risk, often facing their abusers in court alone.”

The case, Single Mothers’ Alliance of BC Society et al. v. HMTQ in right of the Province of B.C. et al., is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 2018. For more information about the case, see the Backgrounder, Factsheet, and pleadings.

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Media Contact
Basya Laye, Director of Development and Engagement
West Coast LEAF
604-684-8772, ext. 214
development@westcoastleaf.org

BC woman’s Charter challenge forces provincial government to provide legal representation to all people detained under the Mental Health Act

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Please note, there is a court-ordered publication ban in place

VANCOUVER, B.C. – A BC woman known as Z.B. has won an important legal victory ensuring that everyone detained under the Mental Health Act has access to legal representation when their continued detention is under review. The BC government has settled Z.B.’s Charter challenge by agreeing to adequately fund legal aid for individuals detained under the Mental Health Act.

mental-health-legal-aid-victory-2-300x300 BC woman’s Charter challenge forces provincial government to provide legal representation to all people detained under the Mental Health ActIn August 2016, Z.B., who was then involuntarily detained and hospitalized, launched a Charter challenge arguing that she had a constitutional right to legal representation at her review hearing. Z.B. could not afford a lawyer and had requested legal aid from the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), which contracts with the government to provide legal aid to involuntary patients. Although Z.B. was eligible to receive legal aid, CLAS had no choice but to deny her request solely because it did not have capacity to provide her with representation at the time of her hearing. It is well documented that the BC government has chronically underfunded legal aid for many years, such that CLAS has been forced to deny legal aid to hundreds of eligible involuntary patients every year since approximately 2009.

On the same day that Z.B. launched her Charter challenge, the BC government agreed to provide her with legal aid for her review hearing. However, Z.B. was determined to help other involuntary patients, who can be not only detained against their will but also forcibly medicated, and demanded a systemic response to her case. In December 2016, after months of negotiations, the BC government agreed to provide CLAS with additional annual funding to enable them to provide legal representation without delay to all involuntary patients who want legal aid for their review hearings and are financially eligible to receive it.

Kate Feeney, a staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and counsel for Z.B., states, “We want to thank Z.B. for taking on this case and for sharing her very personal story with the public. Her courage during a difficult time in her life resulted in a remarkable systemic solution after years of government inaction.”

“Few rights are more fundamental to human liberty than freedom from unconstitutional or arbitrary detention…”

Caily DiPuma, Acting Litigation Director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which has been a supporter of this case, states: “Few rights are more fundamental to human liberty than freedom from unconstitutional or arbitrary detention – including the right to be free from forcible medical interventions. The outcome in this case ensures that British Columbians involuntarily detained under the Mental Health Act receive adequate legal representation as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

BC Hydro regulator to issue decision on rates for BC’s poor

Media Advisory

The BC Utilities Commission, which regulates the province’s electricity rates, has announced it will issue its decision in BC Hydro’s rate review process on Friday, January 20, 2017.

In its decision, the Commission will determine rate structures and conditions of service for BC Hydro’s residential, business and industrial customers.

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is seeking an order that BC Hydro implement programs for low income residential customers including a discounted rate for electricity, low income customer rules, and a crisis intervention fund.

BCPIAC is seeking these programs because low income customers are struggling to pay BC Hydro’s continuously increasing electricity rates, with over 30,000 ratepayers facing disconnection every year.

BC Hydro rates have risen 51 per cent over the last 11 years and are on track to rise an additional 30 per cent over the next eight years.

Following release of the decision, BCPIAC staff lawyer Erin Pritchard can be reached for comment: 604-687-3063.

BC man wins important human rights victory for Deaf people in need of welfare

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Christopher Shay has won his human rights complaint against the BC Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation, with the Ministry agreeing to make a range of changes to improve accessibility and fairness for people who have communication barriers and need welfare.

Mr. Shay, who is Deaf, applied for income assistance in September, 2014, but had to wait 5 weeks to receive a welfare cheque. Mr. Shay, who had received eviction notices because he couldn’t pay his rent, also told the Ministry that he had an immediate need for assistance, a request that according to the Ministry’s service standards should have resulted in him receiving assistance on an expedited basis. Throughout the application process he faced numerous accessibility issues because the Ministry did not accommodate his disability.

Mr. Shay, with the assistance of lawyers at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre, filed a human rights complaint against MSDSI alleging that the delays were discriminatory and the Ministry failed to accommodate his disability. The Ministry entered into settlement negotiations with Mr. Shay, and agreed to make a series of changes in order to accommodate people who are Deaf and have other communication barriers.

Some of the changes that the Ministry has agreed to make include asking specifically whether applicants for assistance have a communication barrier, offering to communicate with applicants in writing using email, arranging for in-person application meetings with sign language interpreters on an expedited basis, and assigning applicants who are Deaf to a newly-created Specialized Intake Unit trained in accommodating people who have communication barriers.

Mr. Shay will be available for interviews on Friday, September 2, 2016 at 9am at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre at 208-1090 West Pender Street in Vancouver. A sign language interpreter will be present.

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For more information, contacts us.

Full Press Release

Anti-poverty advocates call for BC Hydro to implement an electricity affordability program for BC’s poor

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

August 15, 2016 (Vancouver) Starting on August 16, 2016, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) will hold a public hearing to review BC Hydro’s Rate Design Application (RDA). In this process, the BCUC will hear evidence and submissions from BC Hydro and intervener groups and determine rate structures and terms and conditions of service for residential, business and industrial customers.

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is intervening on behalf of seven organizations in this rare opportunity to ask the BCUC to order BC Hydro to implement programs for low income residential ratepayers including a discounted rate for electricity, low income customer rules, and a crisis intervention fund.

BCPIAC is seeking these programs because low income customers are struggling to pay BC Hydro’s endlessly increasing electricity rates. In support of these proposals, BCPIAC has presented evidence from two expert witnesses, and a number of advocates and low income ratepayers.

RDA-social-Final-300x300 Anti-poverty advocates call for BC Hydro to implement an electricity affordability program for BC’s poorBC Hydro has increased residential electricity rates by 50% in the last 10 years, and is on track to increase them by over 30% in the next eight years. Rates are projected to continue to rise significantly in future years as BC Hydro proceeds with multi-billion dollar projects such as the Site C dam which have been exempted from a full public review by the BCUC, and is currently estimated to cost over $9 billion.

BC Hydro’s rate increases have grossly outpaced increases in income for low income British Columbians. For example, BC social assistance rates have been frozen since 2007 at $610 per month for basic assistance and $906 for disability assistance, and in the last 10 years the BC general minimum wage has only increased by $2.45 an hour.

Keith Simmonds, a Minister with Duncan United Church in Duncan BC, who provided evidence in support of BCPIAC’s proposals, has seen an increasing number of people who are either facing disconnection or have already been cut off because they cannot afford to pay their BC Hydro bills. “Inability to pay rising Hydro costs has a huge impact on low income people, especially seniors on fixed pensions and people who rely on the very low social assistance rates that have been frozen since 2007” Simmonds said.  “Many people have to choose between paying rent, purchasing food, and paying their electricity bill.”

“About 10% of BC Hydro residential customers live below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off, which translates to about 170,000 customers”, said Sarah Khan, one of the lawyers at BCPIAC who is bringing this issue to the BCUC.  Khan added that “BC Hydro’s rates are increasing much faster than incomes for low income people, and our proposals will help to mitigate the impact of BC Hydro’s never-ending rate increases”.

BC Hydro offers no rates or terms and conditions that specifically apply to low income customers. The only programs available to these customers are energy saving kits and in more limited cases, energy efficiency audits and certain home upgrades. While these programs are important, they are not offsetting BC Hydro’s rate increases.

BCPIAC’s low income proposals were developed by Roger Colton, an expert in low income rate design from the United States, who will testify as an expert witness during the public hearing. Mr. Colton will testify that measures such as a discounted electricity rate can simultaneously address affordability concerns, improve cost reflectivity in rates, and improve the efficiency of BC Hydro’s operations.

BCPIAC will also be calling Seth Klein, Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office, to testify about the extent and profile of poverty in BC and the difficulties low income people in BC have paying for the basic necessities of life including residential electricity. Mr. Klein’s evidence will provide context for the need for mitigating measures like BCPIAC’s proposed bill affordability programs.

BCPIAC is representing the following groups in this proceeding: Active Support Against Poverty, BC Old Age Pensioners’ Organization, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of BC, Disability Alliance BC, Together Against Poverty Society, and Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre.

The hearing will take place on August 16-18 and 23-24, 2016 in downtown Vancouver.

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FULL Press Release

Background Information

BC woman launches challenge for right to legal representation in Mental Health Act detentions

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Please note, there is a court-ordered publication ban in place

VANCOUVER, B.C. – On Friday, August 12, 2016, Z.B., a woman currently detained in hospital as an involuntary patient under the Mental Health Act, launched a legal challenge in the B.C. Supreme Court, arguing that she has the constitutional right to a government-funded lawyer at an upcoming review of her detention.

Z.B. has asked the Court to grant an injunction requiring the Province to provide her with a lawyer for her Mental Health Review Board hearing on August 23, 2016. Her full constitutional arguments will be heard at a later date.

Z.B. cannot afford to hire a lawyer and had requested legal aid representation from the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS), which contracts with the Legal Services Society to provide legal aid for Review Panel hearings. Despite her eligibility for legal aid, CLAS denied her request because it did not have a lawyer available to represent her at the time of her hearing.  Since 2009, it is well-documented that CLAS has been chronically under funded by the provincial government in this critical area, such that it is not able to meet the demand for its services.

Mark Underhill, a partner with Underhill Gage Litigation and lead counsel for Z.B., states “Z.B. has a constitutional right to a fair hearing to challenge her detention.  In her case, there is no serious question that she requires legal representation to have any chance at a fair hearing.”

Kate Feeney, a staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and counsel for Z.B., states, “the BC government’s ongoing failure to meet its legal aid obligations to involuntary patients has put Z.B. in the unacceptable position of having to fight for her right to lawyer during an exceptionally difficult time in her life.”

Grace Pastine, Litigation Director at the BC Civil Liberties Association, stated: “Most involuntary patients do not have the capacity to represent themselves at Mental Health Review Board hearings. These hearings are complex and almost all involuntary patients have or are perceived to have mental health problems. Many are also dealing with the side effects of psychiatric treatments such as mind-altering psychotropic drugs and electroconvulsive shock therapy.”

As Commissioner Leonard T. Doust, QC said in his 2011 report “Foundation for Change: Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid in British Columbia,” for those individuals trying to navigate the Mental Health Act hearing process without legal representation, “[i]t almost goes without saying that this is a profound violation of the rights of one of the most vulnerable segments of our community”.  [emphasis added]

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FULL Press Release

Background Information

Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline launched by legal community

For Immediate Release

BCPIAC, CLAS, BCCLA, FACLBC, SABABC, CBABC, NCCM, CABL, Access Pro Bono

VANCOUVER (March 9, 2016) – Today the legal community in British Columbia launched the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, after a nationwide increase in reported incidents of racial and faith-related discrimination against Muslims in recent months. The hotline will connect individuals who have experienced discrimination with free, confidential legal advice and information. The number is 604-343-3828. Members of the public can also learn about the service on the Islamophobia Hotline website.

As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.

“Islamophobia can be experienced in many different ways,” said Sarah Khan, staff lawyer at the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “We have heard reports of harassment, violent attacks, racial profiling, property destruction and threats from across the country. Islamophobia affects everyday Canadians as they go about their lives, their schooling and their work. As a legal community, it is our duty to pull together and ensure that people who are affected by this racism are able to protect their rights.”

The hotline is being run by Access Pro Bono Society of BC, a non-profit that assists individuals of limited means to obtain free legal services. Staff at Access Pro Bono will receive the calls and connect those in need of assistance with lawyers who are willing to provide a free legal advice or information. Interpretation will be available in order to provide services in multiple languages.

FB_graphic Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline launched by legal community

“We want to help empower people to respond to this discrimination by making legal support more easily available,” said Aleem Bharmal, Executive Director of the Community Legal Assistance Society. “Many people who experience this sort of discrimination may not even know that there might be legal options available to respond, depending on what happened, such as filing a discrimination complaint at the Human Rights Tribunal. We want to make sure people can get the advice that they need.”

“Discrimination against Muslims, and people perceived to be Muslims, is an intolerable and ongoing reality in Canada,” said Hasan Alam, a Vancouver lawyer who has helped to organize the hotline. “The heated rhetoric of last year’s election built on years of divisive politics that repeatedly singled out Muslim Canadians and treated them as less worthy. This has made Muslims more vulnerable to discriminatory treatment and hate crimes. It’s important to make sure that people who experience this hateful treatment can access help, which could include filing a complaint or contacting the police.”

Krisha Dhaliwal of the South Asian Bar Association of B.C. added: “Anti-Muslim racism, discrimination and hatred affect members of many different communities in B.C. It extends beyond Muslims to others who may be mistaken for Muslims, including Sikhs. Lawyers and law students are standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to combat discrimination against Muslims and other people of colour.”

The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline will also document, without individually identifying information, the types of issues that are being reported in order to better understand the scope of the problem in British Columbia.

The Hotline was launched with the support of Access Pro Bono Society, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Community Legal Assistance Society, the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, Western Chapter, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and the South Asian Bar Association of B.C.

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Khaira tree planters win EI appeals after six years

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Almost 6 years after closure of the Khaira Enterprise Ltd. camp in Golden, BC, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has sided with former Khaira tree planters in EI and income tax appeals stemming from work they did in 2010.

Most of the workers came to Canada through the refugee resettlement process from various countries in Africa and worked long hours for Khaira, but were not paid for much of their work, which included long hours traveling between campsites and worksites in remote locations around BC.

CRA initially found that the travel time between campsites and worksites and unpaid overtime did not count towards time being worked for EI purposes. This meant that many workers did not have enough hours to qualify for EI in 2010, despite having worked these hours (and more in many cases).

The BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) filed appeals on behalf of the workers, and following a lengthy process, the Minister of National Revenue decided that unpaid overtime must be included in EI insurable hours and travel time must be included in EI insurable hours and earnings. The workers now have to wait for Service Canada to issue decisions accepting CRA’s appeal decisions, and to get the EI they are entitled to.

This is the latest victory in a long saga of legal proceedings for the workers, who have endured almost 6 years of investigations and appeals

Sarah Khan, BCPIAC lawyer

“This is the latest victory in a long saga of legal proceedings for the workers, who have endured almost 6 years of investigations and appeals”, said Sarah Khan, a staff lawyer with BCPIAC. The workers have previously been successful in unpaid wage claims before the BC Employment Standards Branch (ESB) and Employment Standards Tribunal, and in race discrimination proceedings before the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

John Betts, Executive Director of the Western Silviculture Contractors Association, stated that “It is important for silviculture contractors and workers to know that CRA views travel time to and from camps or motels to the worksite to be insurable for EI purposes. This is consistent with the BC Employment Standards Regulation for silviculture workers, which specifies that time spent traveling between worksites and camps or motels must be considered hours of work for calculating minimum wage for piece work employees.”

Ngakira Gazire, a former employee of Khaira in 2010, added “I am glad that we have finally won these appeals, I hope that Service Canada issues decisions quickly as we have waited a long time to get EI for 2010”.

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Download the Press Release

Tim Hortons: Human rights complaint to proceed against fast food giant

Company fails in bid to have complaint thrown out

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC and CLAS

Last Friday, the BC Human Rights Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ attempt to have a human rights complaint against it dismissed at an early stage.  The complaint was brought in 2012 by four temporary foreign workers from Mexico who say they experienced discrimination in the workplace while they were employed at two Tim Hortons locations in Dawson Creek, BC, while the franchise owner was also their landlord. The workers allege that they were given less desirable schedules and tasks than locally hired workers, were subject to derogatory and racist comments, and were coerced to live in substandard housing.  BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) and Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) are representing the workers in their complaint against both the individual franchise owner and the franchisor, Tim Hortons.

The Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ argument that the workers’ relationship was solely with the franchise owner, not the company. The workers countered that the company contributed to the discrimination they experienced by promoting the use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) among its franchisees, yet failing to adopt business practices that would protect those workers from being mistreated. The workers also argued that since the company exercises strong control over all aspects of its franchise locations, Tim Hortons must be considered to be their employer in addition to the individual franchisee.

We are encouraged by the Tribunal’s decision, and are eager to move forward with the merits of the complaint

Erin Pritchard | BCPIAC staff lawyer

The Tribunal has not yet made a decision on the merit of the complaint, but has said that if the workers’ allegations are proven at hearing, Tim Hortons could be found responsible for the discrimination in employment the workers have alleged.

“We are encouraged by the Tribunal’s decision, and are eager to move forward with the merits of the complaint,” said, Erin Pritchard, one of the lawyers representing the workers.  “Tim Hortons must take responsibility for the way workers are treated in its restaurants.”

The Tribunal’s decision follows hot on the heels of another decision on November 5, in which the Tribunal rejected Tim Hortons’ attempt to have a second complaint about discriminatory treatment of its temporary foreign workers dismissed.  That case concerns the treatment of Filipino temporary foreign workers at Tim Hortons location in Fernie BC.

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Download the Press Release

Download BC Human Rights Tribunal Decision

Download the human rights complaint against Tim Hortons

Increasing BC Hydro rates drive request for an electricity affordability program

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

Legal advocacy group, the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) will ask the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) to implement an electricity affordability program for BC Hydro’s 160,000 low income residential customers. The proposal consists of three strategies to address the hardship caused by high hydro rates on low income customers:

  • lifeline rates to keep rates more affordable for the poorest customers;
  • low income customer service rules including more flexible arrears payment arrangements and waiver of reconnection fees; and
  • emergency bill assistance to avoid disconnection.

BC Hydro has increased residential electricity rates by 47% in the last 10 years, and is on track to increase them by at least 10.5% in the next three years. Rates are projected to continue to rise significantly in future years as BC Hydro proceeds with multi-billion dollar projects such as Site C dam which have been exempted from a full public review by the BCUC.

BC Hydro’s rate increases have grossly outstripped increases in income for low income British Columbians. For example, BC social assistance rates have been frozen since 2007 at $610 per month for basic assistance and $906 for disability assistance, and in the last 10 years the BC general minimum wage has only gone up by $2.45 an hour.

“Electricity is an essential service, and low income BC Hydro customers have no spare money to pay higher electricity costs. Since electricity is essential to survival, people can only pay their electricity bills at the expense of competing household necessities, such as food and medicine” said Trish Garner, community organizer with the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition.

Electricity is an essential service, and low income BC Hydro customers have no spare money to pay higher electricity costs.

“About 10% of BC Hydro residential customers live below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off”, said Sarah Khan, one of the lawyers at BCPIAC who is bringing this issue to the BCUC, adding that “Continuous rate increases and stagnant incomes are causing low income people to struggle to pay for their BC Hydro bills.”

BC Hydro offers no rates or terms and conditions that specifically apply to low income customers. The only programs available to these customers are energy saving kits and in more limited cases, energy efficiency home upgrades. While these programs are important, they are not offsetting BC Hydro’s rate increases.

BC Hydro has just filed a Rate Design Application with the BCUC, and BCPIAC will intervene in this proceeding on behalf of the following groups to request low income programs: Active Support Against Poverty, BC Old Age Pensioners’ Organization, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of BC, Disability Alliance BC, Together Against Poverty Society, and Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre.

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Media Backgrounder

Ombudsperson office denied request for systemic investigation into inaccessibility at BC’s welfare ministry

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

In a decision dated June 23, 2015, then Ombudsperson, Kim Carter, denied the request of nine social service agencies from across the province for a systemic investigation into service reductions at the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation that shut out many eligible people from accessing income assistance. The complaint, filed by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), a law office in Vancouver, in May 2015, alleged that the government has created insurmountable barriers that deprive people of critical income support to which they are legally entitled.

The alleged barriers set out in the complaint included office closures and significant reductions in office hours, channelling calls to under-resourced centralized call centres that serve the whole province and have lengthy wait times, and the creation of a complicated, 90-screen online application process.  The complaint also pointed out that most income assistance recipients do not have phones or internet access, and many are not computer literate, so the Ministry’s changes do not make sense for the users of its services.

Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis.

Ms. Carter, who is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson, set out in her decision that the Ombudsperson’s office would continue to welcome individual complaints relating to the service delivery issues raised in the complaint. Ms. Carter advised that focusing on a systemic complaint would take resources away from the many individual complaints their office receives from vulnerable individuals trying to access the welfare ministry.

As of July 1, 2015, Kim Carter, is no longer in the position of Ombudsperson for BC. Jay Chalke is the new Ombudsperson.

“Our clients are disappointed that there will be no systemic investigation into the serious barriers to access to welfare that they witness on a daily basis. We are currently exploring options as to how to address these critical concerns about access to basic income supports,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi of BCPIAC.

Download the Complaint to the Ombudsperson dated May 12, 2015

Download Kim Carter’s June 2015 decision

RTB takes a pass on investigation request to protect tenant rights in the aftermath of View Towers fire

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

On July 9, 2015 the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) refused Together Against Poverty Society’s (TAPS) request to investigate alleged violations of BC’s landlord tenant legislation, the Residential Tenancy Act, by landlord Westsea Construction Ltd. (Westsea) that arose from a fire that occurred on May 15, 2014 at View Towers.

The fire at View Towers, one of the largest apartment buildings in Victoria providing shelter to low-income individuals and families, displaced many vulnerable low-income tenants, including seniors and people with disabilities.

This denial prompted TAPS to file an application in the BC Supreme Court

TAPS first requested that the RTB investigate Westsea on September 25, 2014. This request was denied by the then-director for the RTB. This denial prompted TAPS to file an application in the BC Supreme Court, which resulted in a court consent order directing that the investigation request be resubmitted to the RTB for a new evaluation.

Past tenants of View Towers provided additional evidence to the RTB to assist in the RTB’s subsequent evaluation. Despite the substantial evidence alleging that tenants were given incorrect or no information about the state of their suites, that tenants were coerced into signing mutual agreements to end their tenancies, and that Westsea failed to provide tenants with access to personal property, the RTB again declined to investigate the landlord.

“The Residential Tenancy Act explicitly provides BC’s RTB with investigative powers, yet these investigative powers have only been used one time to levy administrative penalties,” stated Yuka Kurokawa, TAPS Tenant Advocate. “It is difficult to imagine a case that would be investigated in this province if the evidence in this case provided insufficient grounds.”

Among other reasons, the RTB’s letter stated that it had decided not to investigate the complaint because there has been little history of enforcement actions against the landlord, and “it is very unlikely that there would be public benefit in an investigation as the alleged harm had little effect on other members of the public.”

Systemic investigations are critical to protect the rights of those tenants who are unable, for a variety of reasons, to make individual complaints to the RTB

Stephen Portman, TAPS Interim Executive Director, commented that “from our perspective, it is troubling to see this decision in light of the impact this event has had on a large number of vulnerable tenants in our community. Systemic investigations are critical to protect the rights of those tenants who are unable, for a variety of reasons, to make individual complaints to the RTB.”

Sarah Khan, a lawyer with the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), who is representing TAPS in the complaint request, stated “unfortunately, there are very few effective levers available to tenants to address systemic contraventions of BC’s landlord tenant laws. At this stage, TAPS will be reviewing all of the available options to continue to provide support to those affected by the fire.”

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