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B.C. commissioner urges creative ways to fight hate as reports double during pandemic

VANCOUVER — British Columbia should have been able to anticipate a spike in hate to some degree during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to protect the people who became targets, the provincial human rights commissioner says.
B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender speaks after releasing the final report on her inquiry into hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Govender says the province is facing a "reckoning" as hate in society rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — British Columbia should have been able to anticipate a spike in hate to some degree during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to protect the people who became targets, the provincial human rights commissioner says.

Kasari Govender released a nearly 500-page report following her inquiry into the rise of hate during the pandemic and made a dozen recommendations, including for the government to have plans to deal with hate speech and violence as part of its overall emergency preparedness.

"Even though this may be the first global pandemic that many of us have experienced, it's not the first social crisis certainly that the world has seen," Govender said in an interview.

"And evidence has shown for some time that in times of social crisis we see an increase in hate, in gender-based violence and in all forms of hate, including racism.

"So, I would have liked to see that built into our emergency response from the beginning and my hope is that next time around we will have taken those steps prior to a crisis hitting."

Govender's report says government emergency planning must include increased support for women, young people and gender-diverse people like more shelter spaces and transitional housing.

It says low-barrier mental health supports should be available for people dealing with the anxiety associated with an emergency.

"Imagine what it would have looked like in March 2020 if we had gone into whatever version of lockdown our particular community went into, and everybody had access to low-barrier, widely accessible mental health supports," she said.

"In my view that would have been transformative, primarily for people who might have experienced hate and violence that they had somewhere to go, but also to prevent hate and violence from arising in the first place."

The report defines incidents of hate more broadly than the legal definition of a hate crime and covers actions or speech rooted in prejudice that aim to dehumanize or silence a targeted group.

At a public event Tuesday, Govender described incidents of people being screamed at and spat on, images of bullet holes being painted on a mural of Chinese families, white supremacist literature being left near a school on Orange Shirt Day, and flyers threatening to burn the tents of homeless people.

"While hate is not new, the pandemic marks a period in our collective experience that's being filled with fear, mistrust, division and hate. It is a period that will be remembered as exceptionally divisive, and one that has challenged the various institutions that are tasked with keeping us safe and upholding the rule of law and democracy," she said.

The report says police reported hate incidents in B.C. in 2021 were 118 per cent higher than in 2019.

In the same period, police reported hate incidents targeting Indigenous people in B.C. were up 367 per cent, incidents against Black people rose 112 per cent, those targeting southeast and East Asian people were up 181 per cent and hate against South Asian people increased 78 per cent.

Hate occurrences aimed at people based on religion was up 74 per cent, while it increased nine per cent based on people's sexual orientation, the report says.

But as victims struggle to come forward with what they've experienced, quantifying the true number can be difficult.

Based on data from Statistics Canada, police, prosecutors and the courts, the commission estimated the actual number of hate incidents in the province from 2015 and 2021 to be around 20,000.

Of those, only six cases have been prosecuted, with three convictions.

The report asks the government to create restorative programs to deal with hate, develop Crown policy directives that encourage a broader range of prosecutions for hate-related incidents and give guidance on when gender-based violence should be considered a hate crime.

Govender calls for a new policing standard and a requirement that all police departments have at least one trained hate crimes specialist.

The report also calls for the creation of a community-led centralized system for reporting incidents of hate that connects victims with counselling, helps them navigate the legal system, and collects data to analyze trends as part of a provincewide strategy to address hate.

In schools, the report calls for an expansion of anti-hate curriculum in grades K-12.

At a separate news conference Tuesday, Premier David Eby said he, and many other residents, couldn’t believe the spike in hate that emerged during the pandemic.

Eby said the government will go over the report and work with the commissioner to address the issue that she has raised.

“This report will be useful to us as we look at ways to make sure that our province stays welcoming to everybody," he said.

Though the federal government falls outside the commissioner's mandate, she says she hopes a series of recommendations around social media will be “informative for the government of Canada if and when they choose to address the significant impact of online hate across the country.”

Her recommendations directed at social media platforms include enforcing rigorous terms of service dealing with hateful content, reforming the algorithms to favour less discriminatory content, and stopping placement of ads alongside hateful content.

Though she cannot force the government to act on her recommendations, Govender said her office is "deeply committed to no more dusty reports sitting on shelves."

She said she has the power to require organizations to submit reports and provide her with updates on progress they've made on the recommendations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2023.

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press