Targeting street involved people is discriminatory, court says

Today, in Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users v. Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and the City of Vancouver, the BC Supreme Court found that the Downtown Ambassadors program has engaged in discriminatory conduct against homeless people. West Coast LEAF and the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) say the decision is an important step forward in protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable members of our society. 

This case was about whether the Downtown Ambassadors’ removal of homeless people from public property in downtown Vancouver is discriminatory under human rights law.  Although homelessness is not a condition protected under the Human Rights Code, race and disability are. VANDU successfully argued that homeless people are disproportionately Aboriginal and disabled, but the Tribunal did not agree that they were being discriminated against.

The coalition of West Coast LEAF and the Community Legal Assistance Society was granted leave to intervene in this case. We argued that the test for discrimination must take in to account the social reality of street involved people. The Tribunal found that the Ambassador’s treatment of homeless people was harmful to them, and that homeless people in the downtown core are disproportionately Aboriginal and disabled. We argued that these findings should have been enough to show discrimination. The BC Supreme Court agreed.

Frances Kelly, staff lawyer at CLAS, notes “The reality for many people who are street involved is such that it is not always realistic to require them to give evidence in court about their experiences. But this should not be a barrier to bringing a successful human rights claim forward – and today, the BC Supreme Court has recognized this.”

“Today’s decision is a victory for marginalized people,” says Kasari Govender, Executive Director and co-counsel for West Coast LEAF. “The Court has affirmed that the evidence required to prove discrimination must not be so great as to exclude those in our society who are most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged from bringing forward important human rights claims. This is a significant step forward for ensuring respect for human rights, particularly for the most marginalized among us.”

The Court has sent the case back to the BC Human Rights Tribunal to determine whether the discriminatory conduct can be justified.