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

Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

poverty-reduction-strategy-final Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

The Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction will be addressing poverty in BC with a Poverty Reduction Strategy

And we’re thrilled! Now is the time to tackle the serious (and worsening) issues with service delivery at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and raise BC’s shamefully low social assistance rates.

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Accessibility at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people on welfare and reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We are writing to you to set out some longstanding and worsening problems that low income people have when trying to access income assistance through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), and also to propose a number of solutions to these problems.

Accessibility problems

BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (“BCPIAC”) is mandated to address systemic issues affecting low income people across the province. Based on consultations with members of the anti-poverty community, we have recently focused our efforts on improving accessibility at your ministry. We are concerned that there is a growing number of British Columbians who are in need of income assistance and disability assistance (often collectively called “welfare”), and are in fact legally eligible for it, but are struggling to survive without it simply because they cannot navigate the welfare system.

As you know, over the past several years, the recently renamed MSDPR has transitioned from delivering services primarily in person to delivering services primarily through an online portal and over a centralized 1-866 phone line. Wait times on the phone line are extremely long – regularly averaging over 45 minutes – and workers are pressured to keep calls within short, arbitrary time limits whether or not the caller’s issue is resolved. Meanwhile, there have been massive reductions in in-person services, including office closures across the province and removal of discretion for frontline workers. Increasingly, those who go into a Ministry office for help are told to leave and use the online portal or phone line instead. This is the case despite the fact that the Assistant Deputy Minister of Service Delivery has repeatedly told advocates that people who require in-person service can go to the front desk of an MSDPR office for intake.

As a result, in order to meaningfully access MSDPR’s services, most welfare applicants and recipients now require:

  • Generous access to a phone, computer, and internet;
  • Computer and internet proficiency; and
  • Ability to effectively communicate and receive information online and over the phone, through a call centre.

We frequently hear advocates and individuals comment that “a person practically has to be middle class to be on welfare these days.” The assumptions underlying this service delivery model do not reflect the lived experiences of many welfare applicants and recipients. First, social assistance in BC is described by the Ministry itself as “income of last resort”, meaning that applicants must exhaust almost all other income and assets before they are even eligible to apply. Welfare applicants and recipients are very poor and most cannot afford their own phones, computers, and internet access. Second, welfare applicants and recipients disproportionately have characteristics that heighten the need for accessible services and accommodation, including:

  • Physical and/or mental disabilities (including mental illness);
  • Limited ability to express themselves or be understood in English;
  • Status as a recent immigrant to Canada, an Indigenous person, and/or as a member of a racialized group;
  • Limited education; and/or
  • Rural isolation.

In its policy manual, MSDPR recognizes that it has a duty to accommodate its clients, and states that it will accommodate individuals who require in-person services. However, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR rarely provides in-person services to individuals who require them. Instead, it has become common practice in MSDPR offices for staff to refer those that need help navigating MSDPR services to community organizations. The reality to which MSDPR must answer is that many, if not most, welfare applicants and recipients require in-person services as a matter of accommodation. Further, those individuals with the highest accessibility needs also tend to be the most entrenched in poverty, meaning that when they are denied access to welfare, they must survive on little to no money.

We (and many others) have repeatedly raised these problems, and a solution is long overdue. In a systemic complaint to the BC Ombudsperson in May 2015 filed on behalf of nine community organizations across the province, we described these problems in detail, and provided a large body of evidence to demonstrate how MSDPR’s service delivery model is effectively shutting vulnerable people out. A copy of that complaint is attached to this letter as Appendix A. We also made submissions about these issues to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in 2015 and 2016; our submission from October 2016 is attached to this letter as Appendix B.

Despite our work and the vocal opposition to MSDPR’s service delivery changes by those who regularly interact with the welfare system, MSDPR has continued to forge ahead with its move to an increasingly complex, impersonal, and tech-based model of service delivery. In the meantime, vulnerable people are left without critical supports simply because they cannot navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth.

A recent change by MSDPR is illustrative of the incongruence between MSDPR’s service delivery and the people MSDPR serves. For several years, MSDPR has had an online component to its income assistance application, which applicants must complete before proceeding to the next stages of the application process. The online component was inaccessible to many applicants because it was only offered online in English and was complex and time-consuming. In February 2017, despite widespread criticism about the accessibility of the online component, MSDPR moved its entire income assistance application online. Further, the online application now requires applicants to complete the following steps before they can even apply for assistance:

  • Register for an online account on MSDPR’s “MySelfServe” portal, which in turn requires that applicants:
    • Have access to or create a personal email account; and
    • Create a BCelD username and password.

Since its introduction in February, the latest version of the application process has prompted a flood of calls and emails to our office from advocates and individuals confounded by these new requirements. While MSDPR says that it provides remote-based phone support to applicants who require accommodation in completing the online application, this does not respond to the anti-poverty community’s concerns about the online application. First, asking applicants to complete the application over the phone raises many of the same accessibility issues as asking them to complete the application online. It does not at all accommodate applicants who require in-person assistance in order to complete the application. Second, members of the anti-poverty community report to us that in practice, MSDPR refuses to provide phone support to those who request it.

In May 2017, BCPIAC sent an open letter to all candidates in the provincial election outlining the issues with the new online application process, and calling for candidates to commit to addressing them; that letter is attached here as Appendix C.

Recommendations for change

We are so pleased to have a new government that has committed to creating a province “where no one is left behind.” In service of that commitment, we ask that you take steps immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the province can access the supports they need – supports to which they are legally entitled.

Specifically, we recommend the following:

  1. Providing timely in-person individualized assistance to those that need it;
  2. Providing computers and Ministry staff at every Ministry office for the purposes of helping applicants through the application process for income assistance and other supports;
  3. Modifying the online application for income assistance so that it is not mandatory to create an email address and BCelD;
  4. Institute a review of MSDPR’s accessibility as part of the broader poverty reduction strategy; and
  5. Implement accountability and performance measures based on that review.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further. We would also be very pleased to work with you in a collaborative manner to improve access to MSDPR services.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

BC Human Rights Commission — Consultation Process

human_rights_commission_engagement_0 BC Human Rights Commission — Consultation Process Join the discussion on human rights in BC.

The Government of British Columbia is re-establishing the BC Human Rights Commission. Your stories, ideas and concerns can help shape the role and priorities of the new commission. Join an online consultation with Parliamentary Secretary Ravi Kahlon and talk about what matters to you. The online discussion is open until November 17, 2017. All feedback will be summarized in a public report by the end of 2017.

Currently, British Columbia has a Human Rights Tribunal that receives and decides on human rights complaints. Is this enough? What about an organization to take a proactive approach to prevent discrimination, deal with it when and where it happens, and face inequalities built into our institutions? That is the work of human rights commissions across Canada—should it be the work of the BC Human Rights Commission?

Have your say. Help shape the future for human rights in BC.

Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9290 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Minister Simpson:

RE: Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. We are thrilled about your strong mandate to improve life for people in need of welfare and to reduce poverty in British Columbia.

We work closely with the anti-poverty community in British Columbia to address systemic issues affecting people with low incomes across the province. Based on our experience, an important concern for people with low incomes is access to administrative justice, as administrative tribunals are tasked with determining matters that go to the heart of their social and economic security, including housing, social assistance, and supports for people with disabilities. As such, ensuring access to administrative justice must be part of any poverty reduction strategy.

The purpose of this letter is to highlight the anti-poverty community’s pressing concerns about the effectiveness and credibility of the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal (“the EAAT”), and offer recommendations about how to restore public confidence in the EAAT. As you know, the EAAT determines appeals of decisions by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (“MSDPR”), including decisions that result in the refusal, discontinuance, or reduction of income assistance, disability assistance, or a supplement to either (collectively, “welfare”). Access to these critical supports – and the decisions the EAAT makes concerning them – has a direct impact on the alleviation (or entrenchment) of poverty for many British Columbians.

Our predominant concern is whether the EAAT is providing appellants with an effective and fair review process, in light of the dramatic decline in the EAAT’s appeal success rate over 10 years, as illustrated in the table and graphs below.1

Fiscal year Appeals heard Decisions rescinded Success rate
2015/2016 614 47 7.6%
2014/2015 564 30 5.3%
2013/2014 690 45 6.5%
2012/2013 747 87 11.6%
2011/2012 841 125 14.9%
2010/2011 945 216 22.9%
2009/2010 955 322 33.7%
2008/2009 830 246 29.6%
2007/2008 581 157 27%
2006/2007 840 292 34.7%
2005/2006 1120 426 38%
EAAT_graph_001 Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The data also shows a decline in the overall number of appeals heard by the EAAT, which corresponds to the declining success rate. In our view, a reasonable reading of the decline in the number of appeals heard is that the low success rate is discouraging people from pursuing their statutory right to appeal. This view is supported by anecdotal evidence from our conversations with anti-poverty advocates and affected individuals. We are alarmed by the common refrain from anti-poverty advocates that assisting their clients with appeals is a “waste of time and resources,” and that many advise their clients not to bother with appeals at all.

An important aspect of the appeal success rate is that, pursuant to the Employment and Assistance Act, the EAAT applies a reasonableness standard of review to decisions under appeal. According to a Freedom of Information request by BCPIAC to the EAAT, the EAAT’s standard of review conforms to the reasonableness standard applied by the courts. EAAT members are told that:

“On a proper application of the ‘reasonableness’ standard, the Ministry’s decision must be confirmed as long as there is a logical basis for it on the law and the evidence. The panel may interpret the legislation and view the evidence somewhat differently but as long as there is a logical and rational basis for the Ministry’s decision, the panel cannot properly rescind it. A reasonableness standard recognizes that there are times when legislation can be rationally interpreted and applied in more than one way.”

We say that the level of deference represented by the reasonableness standard cannot be reconciled with the EAAT’s purpose and the social and economic interests at stake. However, a deferential standard of review does not explain what amounts to a nosedive in EAAT’s appeal success rate, nor an appeal success rate that has sat below 10% since 2013/2014.

We are not aware of any publically available review of the EAAT’s declining appeal success rate. In November 2016, after consulting with anti-poverty advocates, we wrote a letter to the Chair of the EAAT, Marilyn McNamara, to identify the same concerns set out in this letter and to request more information about the EAAT’s practices and procedures. Ms. McNamara did not respond to our letter, which we have attached as Appendix A to this letter for your review.

EAAT_Rates_Final Justice before the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and Poverty Reduction

The gravity of this issue is underscored by the EAAT’s insulation from effective judicial review. First, pursuant to the Administrative Tribunals Act, courts apply a standard of review of “patent unreasonableness” to decisions by the EAAT, which itself applies a “reasonableness” standard to MSDPR decisions. In our view, the combined effect of these highly deferential standards of review, which anti-poverty advocates commonly refer to as “reasonableness squared,” may be unconstitutional in that it is virtually impossible to overcome. Second, in the absence of poverty law legal aid, most individuals cannot access the judicial review process at all.  These issues heighten the importance of the EAAT providing a meaningful opportunity to appeal MSDPR decisions, and getting those decisions right.

Recommendations

In sum, people in need of welfare have the right to an effective and respectful review of MSDPR decisions. The declining appeal success rate raises important questions about whether the EAAT is providing such access, resulting in a loss of public confidence in the administrative tribunal tasked with deciding the rights of highly vulnerable members of our society. In order to restore public confidence in the EAAT, we offer the recommendations set out below:

  1. Initiate an audit or review of the EAAT’s practices and procedures to determine whether the EAAT is accurately applying its legislation and meeting its procedural fairness obligations, with a mind to the particular barriers EAAT appellants may face in accessing justice (e.g. mental and physical disabilities, mental health issues, language barriers, low literacy and/or limited education).
  2. Consult with anti-poverty organizations and affected individuals about the structure, process, and terms of reference for the audit or review.
  3. Institute performance and accountability measures for the EAAT as recommended by the audit or review.
  4. Amend the Employment and Assistance Act to change the standard of review for the EAAT from reasonableness to correctness and to allow for broadened opportunities to submit new evidence.
  5. Remove the privative clauses from the Employment and Assistance Act (ss. 24(6) & (7)) such that courts are not required to apply a patent unreasonableness standard to EAAT decisions.
  6. Work with the Attorney General to provide legal aid funding for EAAT hearings and judicial reviews of EAAT decisions.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this letter with you further.

Sincerely,

Kate Feeney          Erin Pritchard
Staff Lawyer          Staff Lawyer

cc:
Hon. David Eby, Attorney General
Mable Elmore, Parliamentary Secretary for Poverty Reduction &
MLA (Vancouver-Kensington)

1 Data has been taken from the EAAT’s Annual Reports, found at http://www.eaat.ca/the-tribunal/annual-report.

Link to original letter including appendices.

Evicted for smudging, First Nations woman files human rights complaint

June 15, 2017 | Josh K. Elliott | CTV News

Link to original article

A First Nations woman from Burnaby, B.C. has filed a human rights complaint after she was evicted for holding a traditional smudging ceremony indoors.

The ceremony, which involves burning sage in a dish and sweeping the smoke around one’s head and body, is a traditional practice among many of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

But Crystal Smith says her landlord, Parminder Mohan, won’t let her do it in the apartment she’s renting.

“I’m being forced to move because my landlord is not allowing me to practice my spiritual ceremonies,” Smith, a single mother from Burnaby, told CTV Vancouver.

So Smith says she’s filing a complaint with the province’s Human Rights Tribunal, in hopes that this does not happen to others.

“The human rights complaint will create grounds for indigenous tenants to say, ‘You can’t evict me because there is this case,'” she said.

Smith’s landlord, Mohan, first noticed her activities from the house’s upstairs apartment in March, and mistook her activities for smoking drugs.

“He smelled it and I got a text message saying that I smell marijuana,” she said.

Smith invited Mohan into her apartment to explain what she was doing, but that didn’t change his mind.

“My upstairs suite is totally full with all the smoke,” Mohan told CTV Vancouver. “I almost passed out. I actually had to stumble out.” He added that he had fans running “24-7” at the house, and that the smell “doesn’t go away.”

Smith received a letter two days after her encounter with Mohan, informing her that she had breached the conditions of her tenancy contract.

An arbitrator at the city’s residential tenancy branch ultimately ruled in favour of Smith. However, Mohan continued to pressure her, issuing three eviction notices after the ruling was made.

“I naively thought that, after the RTB decision, that he would abide by their decision, and he hasn’t,” Smith said.

Smith is now turning her attention to her human rights complaint.

“I’m moving, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up,” she said.

With files from CTV Vancouver

Woman evicted over smudging ceremonies files human rights complaint

June 14, 2017 | Andrew Weichel | CTV Vancouver

Link to original article

An aboriginal woman who claims her landlord tried to evict her for performing traditional smudging ceremonies in her Burnaby, B.C. home has filed a human rights complaint.

Crystal Smith of the Tsimshian and Haisla First Nations said she’s had problems with her landlord, Parminder Mohan, ever since he noticed her smudging at home with her children in March.

The ceremony involves burning herbs to cleanse the body and spirit; to perform it inside, Smith burns sage in a shell and uses a feather to waft the smoke.

“My landlord happened to be in the upstairs unit and he smelled it,” Smith said. “I got a text message maybe 10 minutes after we’d finished smudging saying that ‘I smelled marijuana.'”

Smith, who told CTV News she doesn’t smoke drugs or even cigarettes, assured Mohan that wasn’t the case, and even offered to demonstrate how smudging works. The landlord wasn’t satisfied, and allegedly told her to stop.

Smith said she has since been served three eviction notices, and faces continued pressure to leave despite a Residential Tenancy Branch ruling in her favour.

“Basically I’m being forced to move because my landlord doesn’t allow me to practice my spiritual ceremonies and practices,” she said.

For Smith, smudging is a crucial part of keeping her son and daughter in tune with their heritage.

Having lost her grandparents when she was a young teenager, Smith said she missed out on learning about aspects of her culture at a young age, and she doesn’t want her children to be deprived in the same way.

“I need my children to grow up in culture so they could love who they are, so that they can grow up and be proud,” Smith said.

She’s given up on remaining in their Burnaby home, however. She intends to move out this week, though she’s disappointed at having to upend her family again so soon.

They have only been living in the apartment for a few months, and previously had a brief stay at a safe house where they moved after she left an abusive relationship.

“It’s frustrating,” Smith said. “We were supposed to be in this home until December at least, and I was even hoping to stay a little longer because me and my children have been through so much.”

Mohan sees things differently. He spoke to CTV News by phone Wednesday, and said he’s actually an accommodating landlord who has become the victim of an unappreciative tenant.

Mohan said he reduced Smith’s rent and gave her a dishwasher when she moved in, but he’s concerned about how smudging might impact the property and her neighbours.

He claims the smudging ceremony he witnessed in March sent smoke wafting in the upstairs suite.

“I almost passed out. I actually had to stumble out,” he said. “I had fans running 24/7 trying to get rid of the smell, the smell doesn’t go away.”

Smith said the ceremony does create a smell, but it fades after a day or two. When their dispute was heard by the Residential Tenancy Branch, the arbitrator ruled Mohan hadn’t provided sufficient evidence the smudging had disturbed or adversely affected other tenants.

Most importantly, though, Smith feels smudging is a religious right that shouldn’t open up aboriginal people to evictions or any other form of pressure at home, which is why she has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

“The reason I’m fighting, the reason why I’m pushing this forward is so that my children, my great grandchildren, will not have to do this,” she said.

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Shannon Paterson 

Tenant fights eviction for smudging, takes case to B.C. Human Rights Tribunal

June 7, 2017 | Tereza Verenca | Burnaby Now

Link to original article

A Burnaby woman has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal alleging her landlord is denying her the right to smudge.

Crystal Smith of the Tsimshian Haisla First Nation has smudged – the indigenous practice of burning herbs like sage for prayer or cleansing – for about 15 years.

“It’s been on and off because I really had to find my way,” says the mother of two and UBC master’s student.

Smith’s maternal grandparents died before she was born, and as she puts it, she “didn’t grow up in culture.”

“This is something I had to do on my own. Now that I have children, it’s very important to me to pass on these cultures and these spiritual practices so they can grow up and be proud of who they are.”

At the last home she rented, Smith says she had a unit on the top floor and the landlord had no issues with her smudging.

“They understood the spiritual practice, that it was meant to support me, in my growth and in my culture,” she tells the NOW, noting she received her entire damage deposit back when she left.

Smith moved into a duplex, an address she did not want to disclose for privacy reasons, on Jan. 1, 2017, and signed a one-year lease. But her landlord, Parminder Mohan, was not as understanding, she says.

Since January, Smith has been given three eviction notices, including one to end tenancy early and another one for renovation purposes.

“It’s actually really gross. He’s actually trying to say I’m smoking marijuana and that I’m covering it up with the sage,” she says. “I don’t smoke at all. I’m not doing any damage to the place. It produces white smoke, which does no damage to surrounding walls. The smell does dissipate after maybe a couple days.”

Smith adds Mohan promised her she could move from the basement to the upstairs unit on April 1.

“He won’t let me move upstairs unless I sign an agreement saying I won’t smudge,” she says.

Smith took her eviction notices to the Residential Tenancy Branch for dispute resolution. In the first meeting, the arbitrator found there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that the tenant has unreasonably disturbed or adversely affected the other tenants.”

The arbitrator dismissed Mohan’s application for an early end to tenancy.

In the meantime, Smith was referred to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre for free legal counsel.

After hearing her case, lawyers Kate Feeney and Erin Pritchard advised Smith to submit a complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

“From a legal perspective, smudging’s a spiritual practice, so it’s protected under the Human Rights Code. … The landlord must justify his conduct,” says Feeney.

As far as Feeney knows, Smith’s case is the first of its kind to come before the tribunal.

“There’s been some cases that touch on similar issues in the prison context, like the right for prisoners to smudge, but not in the residential tenancy context,” she says.

When reached for comment, Mohan didn’t shy away from saying why he wants Smith out.

“What she does is she smokes up the whole place. We agreed there was no smoking or anything like that in the unit,” he tells the NOW, reiterating that he thinks Smith is smoking weed.

The first time Mohan realized Smith was smudging, he says he had to “stagger out” of the house.

“I was absolutely going to go unconscious. That’s how much smoke there was. … All of our air circulates and that’s how unaccommodating she’s trying to be. She doesn’t care. She says, ‘It’s my right,’ but she doesn’t care about anybody else,” says Mohan.

The property owner, who owns both sides of the duplex but lives with his parents down the road, notes he’s a “very, very good, fair landlord,” and has been very accommodating to Smith. He says he put a dishwasher in her two-bedroom suite and reduced her rent from $1,350 to $1,200.

“I thought I was helping her. … I try to do my best, but when tenants try to take control and be vindictive like this, it’s unacceptable,” says Mohan, adding he’ll likely file a fourth eviction notice. “I have cultural and religious practices as well, and they require a lot of incense and burning things, but we have fans; we make sure that our practices don’t disturb other people.”

© 2017 Burnaby Now

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

Retail Action Network intervenes in Schrenk v BCHRT at Supreme Court

ran-logo-circle-150x150 Retail Action Network intervenes in Schrenk v BCHRT at Supreme CourtThe Retail Action Network (RAN) is intervening in the appeal of a human rights case in the Supreme Court of Canada. Schrenk v. British Columbia (Human Rights Tribunal) is about the extent to which the BC Human Rights Code (“the Code”) applies to discriminatory harassment in the workplace.  BCPIAC has teamed up with Catherine Boies-Parker and Robin Gage, from Underhill, Boies-Parker, Gage and Latimer LLP, to represent RAN in this intervention.

In the decision on appeal, the BC Court of Appeal held that the Code only applies to situations of harassment where the harasser is the victim’s workplace superior. Further, the Court of Appeal appeared to roll back the liability of employers for the harassment of their employees while at work.

As an organization that is made up of retail, food service and hospitality workers, RAN brings the perspective of workers who are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory harassment by workplace superiors, as well as co-workers and customers, due to their insecure and precarious working conditions. RAN says that in order for the Code to fulfil its essential purpose of identifying and preventing workplace harassment, it must apply to situations of harassment regardless of the harasser’s position in the workplace’s organizational chart, including where the harasser is a customer. Further, RAN says that employers must be liable for the harassment of their employees because of their overarching responsibility for maintaining a discrimination-free workplace.

Read RAN’s factum here.

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.”

Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to “step up for Women’s equality”

West Coast LEAF, a BC organization dedicated to promoting women’s equality through the law, along with a long list of endorsing BC organizations, have called on the BC government and the official opposition to step up for Women’s equality and “commit to implementing – fully and without delay – the UN’s recommendations to demonstrably improve the lives of women in our province”

Read the letter to the BC government and official opposition here. (text below)

West Coast LEAF’s campaign page can be found here.

Read the UN’s recommendations here.

Dear Premier Clark and Mr. Horgan,

WCL-legal-aid-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"We write to ask you to commit to implement, fully and without delay, the enclosed recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The recommendations were issued on November 18, 2016 after the Committee’s review of Canada’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at its 65th session.

We cannot stress enough the importance of implementing these recommendations. Women’s equality in Canada has regressed over the last two decades. In 1995, Canada held 1st place on the United Nations Gender Equality Index; Canada is now at 25th. Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked Canada 35th on gender equality out of 144 countries. To make matters worse, equality for women in BC is lagging behind the rest of Canada on multiple measures. For example:

  • BC consistently has among the highest poverty rates in Canada, and poverty rates for single women, and particularly single women caring for children, are shockingly high. Further, BC is the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan.
  • Families led by women parenting alone experience the highest rates of food insecurity in BC, and the rate is higher than the Canadian average for comparable households.
  • The average earnings of women in BC are well below the Canadian average female earnings and the pay gap between male and female workers in British Columbia is larger than the national average.
  • At BC’s current minimum wage, the earnings of a full time, full year worker are below the poverty line and the majority of minimum wage earners are women. In addition, BC maintains a lower liquor server wage despite research showing that dependency on gratuities increases the risk that these mostly female workers will be subject to sexual harassment.
  • Mothers’ workforce participation rates in BC, access to regulated child care spaces in BC, and provincial public investment per space are all below the Canadian average. Meanwhile, parent fees for regulated child care are higher than the national average.
  • Front line services for women and children harmed by violence have been chronically underfunded, despite the fact that BC has a growing rate of domestic violence-related homicides.
  • BC remains the only province without a human rights commission, which means there is little to no systemic education and monitoring related to gender discrimination in key areas such as employment, housing and public services.
  • British Columbia’s per capita spending on legal aid, services that are crucial to enable women to enforce their legal rights and leave violent relationships, is far lower than the national average.

We know that Canada and British Columbia can do better.

WCL-over-incarceration-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"However, Canada, and in particular British Columbia, has a serious implementation gap. For years, Canada and British Columbia have ignored UN treaty body advice and recommendations, to the detriment of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents and to the detriment of British Columbia as a whole. Canada has no national mechanism for monitoring and facilitating implementation of treaty body recommendations, and British Columbia has no provincial mechanism for implementation of recommendations within its jurisdiction. Further, there is no mechanism for co-operation between federal and provincial governments on implementation in areas where co-ordination among all levels of government is critical. Because of this, treaty body recommendations tend to be ignored rather than realized in a substantive way through government planning, policy, and programs.

The Canadian and British Columbia governments can take a huge step forward for women and for human rights by immediately beginning to plan for implementation of the CEDAW Committee’s most recent recommendations. The CEDAW recommendations cover a wide range of issues crucial to women’s advancement, many of which are all or partly within provincial jurisdiction: access to legal aid; the gender wage gap and pay equity; housing and poverty reduction; child care; political participation; violence; the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous women; the needs of women with disabilities; detention of racialized women and women with mental health issues; access to abortion; harm reduction strategies; and much more.

Given the legal responsibility and leadership role of the Government of Canada, we have called on the federal government to establish an accountability mechanism and to, in cooperation with the provinces and territories, develop a national gender equality plan so that we can move forward in a coordinated and strategic way to fully implement women’s human rights and advance women’s equality. British Columbia’s commitment and cooperation will be crucial to ensure that implementation is meaningful for women in our province.

The CEDAW Committee recommends two mechanisms for implementation of the Convention rights and treaty body recommendations:

  • WCL-MMIW-shareable-300x300 Campaign calls on BC government and official opposition to "step up for Women's equality"an effective mechanism for ensuring accountability and the transparent, coherent and consistent implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women throughout all jurisdictions (at para 11); and
  • a comprehensive national gender strategy, policy and action plan that addresses the structural factors causing persistent inequalities for women and girls, including those who are Indigenous, Afro-Canadian, racialized, disabled, immigrant, refugee and LGBTQ (at para 21).

Coordinated, robust work to advance women’s equality is particularly timely in light of burgeoning attacks on women’s rights and dignity globally. We urge you to publicly commit to take a leadership role and lead British Columbia to provide a model for other provinces by working with the federal government to take progressive, determined action to implement the CEDAW Committee’s concrete and detailed recommendations. We need action now that demonstrates British Columbia’s genuine commitment to fulfilling women’s human rights.

We look forward to your response and to working with you on a new plan for women’s equality in British Columbia and for the realization of women’s human rights.

Sincerely,

The BC CEDAW Group*

This letter is endorsed by:

Battered Women’s Support Services
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
BC Society of Transition Houses
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office
Canadian Federation of University Women BC Council
Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC
Disability Alliance BC
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
Hospital Employees’ Union
Ending Violence Association of BC
First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition
Isabel Grant, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Feminist Legal Studies, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Justice for Girls
Living Wage for Families Campaign
Lynne Kent, Chair, Learning Disabilities Association of BC
Margot Young, Professor of Law, Allard Hall Law School, University of British Columbia Poverty and Human Rights Centre
Single Mothers’ Alliance BC
Susan Boyd, Professor Emerita, Peter A. Allard Law School, University of British Columbia
Together Against Poverty Society
University Women’s Club of Vancouver
Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter
Vancouver Women’s Health Collective
West Coast LEAF
Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre
Women Transforming Cities

*The BC CEDAW Group is a coalition individuals and organizations committed to advancing the rights of women and girls in British Columbia. Formed in 2002, the Group has participated in United Nations periodic reviews before a variety of treaty bodies, reporting to the UN on BC’s progress. The 2017 BC CEDAW Group includes the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, Hospital Employees Union, Justice for Girls, Poverty and Human Rights Centre, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, West Coast LEAF, Single Mothers’ Alliance BC, and the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective.

B.C.’s Islamophobia hotline responds to recent events in U.S. and Canada

January 31, 2017 | Nathan Hutton |  Global News
Link to original article

B.C.’s Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is calling the recent attack at a Quebec City mosque, which left six dead, a “despicable act of terrorism.”

Hasan Alam, a community liaison for the hotline spoke harshly about Islamophobia in Canada, “These tragic killings are a harsh reminder of the fact that Islamophobia exists here in Canada, and Muslim Canadians are unfortunately often victims of it.”

Alam was joined on Tuesday in his condemnation of the attack by the president of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers in B.C., David Namkung.

“The attack is a reminder that our country may be more progressive on many issues [than Americans] but we as Canadians are not immune from hate crimes and discrimination,” Namkung said.

Lawyers from legal groups, who launched the hotline last March, responded to the Quebec City attack, and the White House immigration orders temporarily banning passport holders in seven Muslim-majority countries from entry into the United States.

“We want to take this opportunity to add our voice as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to the growing chorus of calls on the Canadian government to take action in light of what is happening in the United States,” said Laura Track, a staff lawyer with the association. “It’s important to remember that a refugee is someone who is unable to continue to live in safety where he or she is, due to the dangers of war, of generalized violence, or serious civil disturbance. Fleeing or seeking asylum is the only realistic option for these people and their families.”

Track went on to speak out against the Safe Third Country agreement, which states refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in,  currently in place between the Canadian and American governments. The agreement currently prevents refugees from seeking asylum in Canada after being refused entry by the United States immigration.

Alam also touched on what he calls the increasing Islamophobic and Xenophobic rhetoric presented by the Trump administration in the United States and even during the last Canadian federal election, “During the last federal election a divisive form of Islamophobic rhetoric was used to single out Muslim Canadians as being a threat. In the present, Canadians are being further exposed to a similar but more extreme form of Islamophobic or Xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration in the United States.”

The hotline was started last March after a nationwide increase in the number of reported incidents related to racial and faith discrimination against Muslims. The hotline connects individuals with others who have also experienced discrimination.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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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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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Background Information

Tree planter case workers awarded $700,000 for injury to dignity

For Immediate Release | BCPIAC

The BC Human Rights Tribunal today issued its decision in favour of 55 tree planters who worked for Khaira Enterprises Ltd. in 2010, finding that the workers were subjected to discrimination on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour and sex.  All but one of the Complainants are of African origin.  The Tribunal has awarded the workers close to $700,000 in injury to dignity damages.

Tribunal Member Norman Trerise made a number of important findings, including:

  • Unlike the South Asian and white workers, the African workers were not paid all of the wages they were owed. It is more probable than not that Khaira chose to pay its South Asian and white workers out in full rather than to equally distribute available funds amongst all of the workers in order to preserve its relationship with South Asian and white workers because it valued those relationships more than its relationships with the African workers.
  • The African workers were subjected to racial slurs and racial harassment.
  • Khaira had a duty to ensure a respectful workplace and erase a poisonous workplace environment. Khaira failed in its obligations to normalize the working environment for its workers and is responsible for the discrimination of its principals against its African workers and white female worker.
  • The complaint was fully justified due to the discrimination endured by the workers.
  • The Complainants were not motivated by money in pursuing this complaint.

Sarah Khan, one of the lawyers representing the Complainants, said “We are very pleased that the Tribunal has recognized that the discrimination the workers endured harmed their dignity and self worth.”

We are very pleased that the Tribunal has recognized that the discrimination the workers endured harmed their dignity and self worth.

“This decision is a victory for the Khaira workers. The BC Federation of Labour has been involved with this case from the start and I am relieved that the efforts of these workers to stand up for their dignity and rights have been rewarded,” said Jim Sinclair President of the BC Federation of Labour. “But we need to remember that the conditions that led to this deplorable situation are still in place today. The provincial government needs to step up to the plate, apologize to these workers and immediately pay them the money ordered by the Human Rights Tribunal. These workers were planting trees under contract from the provincial government and they were working on public lands.”

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