The law, which prohibits the promotion of hatred, means perpetrators can be fined up to $2,000 or spend up to six months in jail, or both.
While the act was a step forward, many advocates say most human rights laws still remain ineffective in bringing justice to those wronged by race-based violence and harassment. The issue has come even more sharply into focus over the past two years, with a spike in hate crimes in British Columbia.
Police-reported hate crimes in the province increased almost 60 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while hate crimes nationally rose 37 per cent. The majority of these crimes targeted Black, East Asian, South Asian and Indigenous people.
Both the provincial and federal governments say they are attempting to address racism through legislation, but advocates say more practical, on-the-ground action is needed.
KKK hate campaign
In 1981, B.C.’s Civil Rights Protection Act was considered landmark anti-racism legislation. The hope was that it would help tackle a resurgence of hate crimes spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
At the time, the white supremacist group had already been tied to various incidents throughout the Lower Mainland. The previous year, 42 Nigerian students from the British Columbia Institute of Technology had been the target of verbal and physical attacks by the KKK.
The campaign, which lasted nearly four months, involved garbage dumped on doorsteps, threatening phone calls and the letters “KKK” graffitied on homes and cars.
“[The KKK’s] plans, of course, were to ensure that Black people in particular — but other visible minorities [as well] — weren’t allowed to succeed in society,” said former lawyer and human rights activist Paul Winn. “They felt that we were less than human in some respects, according to their doctrine.”
Now 82, Winn, a former president of the now-defunct B.C. Black Solidarity Association, still clearly recalls the many avenues he was forced to take after the provincial government continuously failed to protect people of colour.
Winn filed a complaint against the KKK with B.C.’s human rights branch, but it was denied, with a spokesperson telling the Province newspaper in November 1980 that the human rights code would have little effect.
Several activists then asked Alan Williams — who was B.C.’s attorney general from 1979 to 1983 — to prosecute the KKK under a section of the Criminal Code that prohibits “wilfully promoting hatred.” But Williams refused, saying the KKK had not broken any laws.
In response, Winn, along with former Vancouver MLA Emery Barnes, advocated for new anti-racism legislation. With the help of a lawyer hired by the province, the Civil Rights Protection bill was drafted.
The act, which took effect In June 1981, differed from the Criminal Code in the sense that individuals could now take action against those promoting hatred without the permission or assistance of the attorney general.
Hate remains legally undefined
But laws are far from perfect, human rights advocates say.
According to the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII), only 28 cases in B.C. have cited the act since the early 2000s.
“I think there’s this issue of the law being not precise enough and allowing for discretion to be applied, which all laws do,” said June Francis, chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society — a non-profit organization that highlights Black history in B.C. — and special adviser on anti-racism to the president of Simon Fraser University. “But the more discretion, the more likely systemic racism is going to affect the outcome.”
She added, “The vagueness with which these categories are constructed does permit the exercise of discretion in deciding what meets the test of a hate crime or not. And once there’s discretion, this discretion often works against people like us Black people.”
- B.C. leaders’ answers on white privilege prompt concerns about their grasp of racism issues
- Lone Black employee in 300-person department claims discrimination against City of Vancouver
Cpl. Anthony Statham, of the RCMP’s B.C. Hate Crimes Team, echoed Francis’s sentiments, noting there was no legal definition of what constitutes hatred — and much of what is considered a “hate group” is expressed through the media and public opinion.
“The federal government’s trying to address that by adding a definition of ‘hatred’ to the Criminal Code,” he said. “There are laws that talk about what it is, but that in and of itself isn’t defined in law. We’re at a point now where we’re kind of out of sync with what the law is attempting to do or not.”
Statham said that Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides for freedom of expression, essentially allows people to legally be part of hate groups.
“But if you do anything in support of that group — whether raising money or anything that’s intended to support that group ideologically or further its cause or ability — then that’s where terrorism offences can come into play,” he said.
KKK literature making disparaging comments about Martin Luther King Jr. was distributed as recently as 2017 within B.C.’s Fraser Valley. As of the date of publication, the KKK is not listed as a terrorist entity on the Public Safety Canada website.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said a group must meet “explicit criteria” involving terrorist activity to be added to the list.
Legal deterrents won’t stop hate crimes from happening in B.C., said Statham, who pointed instead to the need for systemic changes.
“I don’t think there’s much evidence at all that people stop committing a hate-motivated crime because they’re deterred by the outcomes of other cases previously,” he said. “I think that to try and have an effect on that really, it’s a broader strategy that has to target a lot of different things that are problematic in society.”
For example, Statham said, minorities largely distrust police due to a history of poor relationships between their communities and law enforcement. Also, many victims are hindered from reporting crimes due to fear of not being believed and ultimately dismissed.
Francis, meanwhile, is calling for more members of the BIPOC community in positions of power and influence to ensure that decision-making is inclusive and representative of the wider society.
While she had already made B.C. her home in the 1980s, she says she didn’t hear about the KKK’s hate campaign against the Nigerian students until much later in life. Only a handful of newspapers reported on it at the time.
Francis says this problem stems from the various ways in which institutions promote racism and systemically erase and minimize racist experiences.
One example she uses is “the intentional displacement of the Black community” by the City of Vancouver, the province and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) — most notably by the levelling of Hogan’s Alley, a vibrant Black neighbourhood in Strathcona — to make way for the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts about 50 years ago.
Reported hate crimes rising in Canada. Here’s how police investigate and prosecute them
- More than half of Asian Canadians experienced discrimination in past year: survey
When contacted for comment by CBC News, the City of Vancouver and the CMHC acknowledged their role in this displacement and vowed to do better moving forward. MLA Rachna Singh, the parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, said the province has made addressing anti-Black racism a priority.
B.C. is currently shaping anti-racism data legislation with the help of a public survey. Singh told CBC News that the data the province collects will help to identify gaps and barriers in the system. Further public consultations will then address how the provincial government can try to correct them.
Francis stressed the importance of collecting data, noting that this is the first transformative step toward addressing inequities.
“What you don’t see, you can ignore,” she said. “What you don’t measure doesn’t exist.”