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Unpacking the public dialogue on discriminatory street checks in British Columbia

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For years, we have heard reports from racialized communities in BC that they are over policed and under protected. This manifests in many ways, from overuse of force by police, to the racially biased use of street checks on marginalized populations. Yet, when we have called for accountability and action to end these policies and practices, police forces have asserted that statistical data does not exist to corroborate the lived experiences of community members, and that these issues are not systemic in nature.

This claim has now shifted with the release of decade long data that show the significant overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the rates of “street checks” or “police stops” conducted by the Vancouver Police Department (“VPD”). In response, the BCCLA has been engaged in a public dialogue on the practice of street checks, often referred to as carding, and its effects on marginalized communities.

In collaboration with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, in mid‑June, we filed a complaint with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (“OPCC”)[1] against the VPD regarding its practice of street checks. The complaint specifically concerned the policies and practices of the VPD that have led to such a significant overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the street check statistics.

The conversation around street checks and carding has been ongoing across the country, and racialized communities have consistently highlighted its impact on their daily lives. In contribution to this dialogue, this blog is the first of a series aimed at breaking down what street checks are, what your rights are when stopped by the police, and what a provincial policy on street checks could look like in BC.

In the Vancouver context, members of Indigenous and Black communities have spoken out against the practice of street checks. Elaine Durocher, a Métis grandmother and board member of Downtown Eastside Women’s Center, explained:

“We experience the racist practice of VPD street checks every day in the Downtown Eastside. As Indigenous people and people of colour living in poverty, we are routinely stopped by the police on every block – from our home, to the food lineup, to our volunteer work – for no reason other than to question and intimidate us. For Indigenous women surviving colonial gendered violence […] street checks are yet one more way that we are over-policed and under-protected on our own lands.”

This experience was echoed by June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society, who stated:

“Black and Indigenous people have long complained of systemic racism by the Vancouver police.  The figures released on Vancouver police’s targeting of Indigenous and Black people for arbitrary “street checks” and police stops are alarming and should start to shed light on the daily reality of targeted populations who are far too frequently exposed to physical harm, humiliation and serious violations of their rights.”

In response to our complaint, the VPD’s Chief Constable, Adam Palmer, defended the practice of street checks as well as the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the rates of street checks.

In a June 18, 2018 interview with CBC Radio’s The Early Edition, Chief Constable Palmer said:

“The arrest statistics that we have in the city, they match the demographics that we have for street checks as well. […] It reinforces the fact that those are the people who are committing crimes in our city.”[2]

Chief Constable Palmer’s statements link criminality to race by arguing that the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the rates of street checks are not the result of discrimination, but rather the result of Indigenous and Black people committing more crimes than the general population. Yet, even the Supreme Court of Canada has emphasized the connection between racial bias and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people, for example, in the criminal justice system. In the case of R. v. Gladue,[3] the Supreme Court of Canada commented that Canada’s history has been pervaded with racist policies and practices against Indigenous people, such as the residential schools system, and that:

“[t]here is evidence that this widespread racism has translated into systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system.”[4]

While the Court’s comments were with respect to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the Canadian correctional system, the Court was clear that the problem exists in all parts of the criminal justice system:

“[The excessive imprisonment of Aboriginal people is only the tip of the iceberg insofar as the estrangement of the Aboriginal peoples from the Canadian criminal justice system is concerned.  Aboriginal people are overrepresented in virtually all aspects of the system.”[5]

In her book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Robyn Maynard makes the link between police encounters with Black people and the overrepresentation of Black people in other parts of the criminal justice system:

“The assumption, then, that Black people are likely to be criminals results in more Black people being watched, caught, charged and incarcerated….[I]t is racially disproportionate policing, rather than racially disproportionate crime, that has resulted in the enormous levels of Black people behind bars in Canada today.”[6]

It is clear that the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in prisons and their overrepresentation in encounters with police are closely linked. After all, police are a part of the criminal justice system, and represent the portal into which people enter that system. Therefore, the same questions about discrimination in Canada’s prisons must be asked about discrimination in policing.

With these intersections in policing and the criminal justice system in mind, stay tuned for our next blog as we outline the legal dimensions of what street checks are, and what to do when you are stopped by the police.


[1] Letter from British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs to Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, “Policy Complaint Concerning Street Checks by the Vancouver Police Department” (June 14, 2018), online https://opcc.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/14863-2018-Jun-14-Service-or-Policy-Complaint.pdf and https://opcc.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/14863-2018-07-17-UBCIC-BCCLA-Letter-to-Van-Police-Board-re-methodology-S….pdf.

[2] Claie Hennig, “VPD chief defends police checks after allegations of racial bias”, CBC News (June 18, 2018), online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vpd-chief-defends-police-checks-1.4711020

[3] R. v. Gladue, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 688 [Gladue].

[4] Gladue, ibid, at para. 61.

[5] Gladue, ibid, at para 61.

[6] Maynard, R. (2017), Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Winnipeg: Fernwood. pp. 87.

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