Adam Olsen (Black Press Media file photo)

Adam Olsen (Black Press Media file photo)

MLA REPORT: What is systemic discrimination, bias and racism?

A column from MLA Adam Olsen

Adam Olsen

MLA for Saanich North and the Islands

I am a member of the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

Parts of the Act have been amended over the years, but it has been decades since there were any major reviews of the entire legislation. With increasing pressure on the provincial government last summer to address systemic discrimination, bias and racism in policing, Minister Mike Farnworth called for the review and gave the committee a sweeping mandate.

Through January committee members have received informational briefings from several government ministries and agencies. In the coming weeks we will be expanding to wider stakeholder presentations from experts, community groups and the public.

What is systemic discrimination, bias and racism? In 2005, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal adopted a definition and Kasari Govender, B.C. Human Rights Commissioner, shared it with the committee. It offers an important frame for our work.

“Discrimination means practices or attitudes that have, whether by design or impact the effect of limiting an individual’s or a group’s right to the opportunities generally available because of an attributed rather than actual characteristics. It is not a question of whether this discrimination is motivated by an intentional desire to obstruct someone’s potential or whether it is the accidental by-product of innocently motivated practices or systems. If the barrier is affecting certain groups in a disproportionately negative way, it is a signal that the practices lead to this adverse impact may be discriminatory.”

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There has been no dispute from the dozen or so senior leaders that presented to the committee over the past few weeks that there is a problem in their provincial ministries and agencies. The question is to what extent?

It is a question they all have trouble answering because the provincial government does not collect comprehensive data, specifically race-based information.

It is not a complete void, of course. We do collect better information about Indigenous people in British Columbia – and that data helps us make vital policy decisions.

For example, because the Ministry of Health has some information about the disproportionate risk COVID-19 poses to Indigenous people, they were able to change their vaccine rollout strategy to reflect that. Noting the value of this information, it makes little sense that Minister Dix would push back against collecting disaggregated demographic data to better understand how the pandemic is affecting other diverse populations. Perhaps if we had that data the vaccine roll-out would look a lot more nuanced than it is today.

With better information we can make better choices. In the darkness of information vacuums, politicians can make decisions that align with their partisan needs, and then falsely claim their decision to be the best possible approach. In this context, it is no wonder our government systems are rife with discrimination, bias and racism.

Commissioner Govender offered a handful of recommendations for the committee reviewing the police act including, “require all police forces in B.C. to collect, disclose, and analyze race-based and other disaggregated demographic data across the full spectrum of police services.”

If this government, or any future government, wants to have a shred of credibility they would move on this recommendation, not just for policing, but across the entire institution.

– Adam Olsen is MLA for Saanich North and the Islands

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