Home / “No One Should be Left Behind:” BCCLA Update on COVID-19

“No One Should be Left Behind:” BCCLA Update on COVID-19

Dear BCCLA members and friends,

Normally, my walk to work takes me through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown – some of our city’s busiest and most vibrant neighbourhoods. Now, like so many of you, I am working remotely from home. The BCCLA has instituted remote work best practices and increased accommodations for work and paid sick leaves to prioritize public health and the well-being of our staff team through this time.

Following the direction of public health experts, we have also made the necessary decision to cancel our upcoming Liberty Awards Gala on May 8th, 2020 and to move the event to 2021. Even before the government directive against large gatherings, the BCCLA was taking steps to cancel our event to ensure we flatten the curve to lessen the impact on our public healthcare infrastructure and on frontline workers.

The BCCLA extends our solidarity and support to our community partners, to frontline care workers, and to the most marginalized in our communities including precarious workers, migrants, prisoners, homeless people, seniors, people with disabilities, and Indigenous communities who are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis.

All government measures should be non-discriminatory, protect the human rights of the most vulnerable, and not unreasonably limit fundamental rights and civil liberties.

The impacts of COVID-19 are not felt equally. Addressing social determinants of health, such as income, working conditions, racism, colonization, disability, gendered violence, safe housing, access to social supports and strengthened public infrastructure, are all vital parts of a public health response to COVID-19.

We are unequivocal that no one should be left behind.

Governments are also implementing a number of extraordinary measures such as closing the border to many Canadians and non-Canadians, and contemplating emergency orders that grant exceptional powers. We remain vigilant to ensure fundamental rights are not being unreasonably or unjustifiably limited. Given the reality of over-policing of poor and racialized communities, the blunt power of any enforcement measures must not further criminalize these communities or those who simply don’t have the means to self-isolate, such as homeless people or women in unsafe housing.

We are particularly disturbed and disappointed about the federal government’s decision to turn away refugees arriving at the US-Canada border. This violates our legal obligations to not turn away refugees seeking safety from violence and persecution. Many refugees are on death-defying journeys and as the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reminds all states “imposing a blanket measure to preclude the admission of refugees or asylum-seekers, or of those of a particular nationality or nationalities, without evidence of a health risk and without measures to protect against refoulement, would be discriminatory and would not meet international standards.” During this pandemic, we can maintain physical distance and enact necessary health measures without violating our legal and moral commitments to refugee rights.

Now more than ever, protecting civil liberties and human rights is absolutely imperative. Here is some of the work we have been undertaking in the past few months.

Prisoners’ Rights

This month we intervened alongside many other organizations, such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, in a precedent-setting case about the constitutional right of prisoners to access prison needle exchange programs as a necessary public health intervention. We know prisoners are particularly vulnerable to violations of their constitutional rights because the government has total control over every aspect of their daily lives, including their access to health care.

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot forget the unjust conditions, including lack of adequate healthcare, faced by people caged behind bars. Our governments must immediately release prisoners who are releasable and reduce the number of people in prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities, and immigration detention centers as an urgent priority.

Photo by Matthew Ansley 

The BCCLA remains committed to upholding the constitutional rights of prisoners alongside advocating for alternatives to incarceration, especially given the gendered colonial crisis of incarceration experienced by Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people. Later this year we will be going to the Supreme Court of Canada to argue that indefinite solitary confinement violates fundamental Charter rights and must be abolished in Canada.

Solitary confinement is a form of torture, and we will not back down from taking this fight to Canada’s top court.

Migrant Rights

Last week, the BCCLA joined with dozen of organizations and community groups, such as Sanctuary Health, in calling for an end to the three-month exclusionary wait period preventing new immigrants, migrant workers, returning Canadians, and even some newborn Canadian babies from receiving health care coverage. Especially amidst a pandemic, we must ensure access to universal healthcare and testing procedures for all residents.

We call for the waiting period to be eliminated immediately.

Last month, Parliament tabled Bill C-3 proposing the establishment of an independent and civilian review and complaints function overseeing Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).  BCCLA has been advocating and campaigning for CBSA oversight for the past several years, and you can count on us to be making submissions on this Bill. Every major police agency in Canada has some form of independent oversight. Yet, despite its immense powers, there has been no independent civilian oversight body to review CBSA policies or investigate officer misconduct.

You can read my interview “CBSA is Not a Fair or Accountable Agency: Why We Need Canada Border Services Agency Oversight” with Mexican refugee Karla Lottini about her personal experiences on why CBSA oversight is necessary and with BCCLA Policy Staff Counsel Latoya Farrell about CBSA oversight (and its shortcomings) proposed in Bill C-3.

As Latoya states, “It is imperative that the government establish a meaningful and robust independent oversight body so that the most vulnerable in our society have their rights, dignity, and humanity protected when interacting with an agency with as much power as the CBSA.”

Police Accountability

Closely related to CBSA oversight is our ongoing work to ensure law enforcement accountability, which has become even more pressing in light of recent revelations that the RCMP have been routinely using facial recognition for up to 18 years!

In unceded Wet’suwet’en territories, where the nation has been in the national spotlight for the assertion of their Indigenous rights and laws, we have been working closing with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs to call for an investigation regarding the improper and unlawful actions of the RCMP.  

RCMP operations in Wet’suwet’en territories have been a clear exercise of overbroad and unlawful policing power, with the impact of criminalizing Indigenous peoples on their lands and violating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Here, in Vancouver, we worked with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Black Lives Matter-Vancouver to oppose the findings and recommendations of a recent Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review. The VPD Street Check Review assumes that street checks are valuable, despite the lack of any evidence to support the claim. We also disagree with the review’s finding that the statistical evidence of disproportionate over-policing is “plausible.” Indigenous and Black people are significantly over-represented in the numbers of street checks conducted by the VPD. This undermines the claim that VPD are engaged in proactive policing and, instead suggests that race-based over-policing and pretext policing are occurring.

We will continue to oppose discriminatory and unnecessary VPD street checks.

Patients’ Rights

Last, but certainly not least, we will continue to advocate for medically-assisted death with dignity and for patients’ rights. Earlier this month, the federal government tabled Bill C-7 to amend Canada’s medical assistance in dying law. This came after the BCCLA litigated and the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decriminalized assisted dying for seriously and incurably ill people in 2015.

As our Litigation Director Grace Pastine puts it, “The new MAID law is a mixed bag for civil liberties and patients’ rights.” Many patients will now face additional, confusing hurdles and intolerable wait periods that make it impossible for them to have a compassionate dying process.

The BCCLA has been urging the government to address these flaws in the legislation and make amendments before the bill becomes law.

And if all that wasn’t enough, we have been working hard to ensure corporations cannot benefit from the protection against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment as set out in s. 12 of the Charter.

Yes, you read that right. A company is arguing it has the right to section 12 protection in order to avoid paying a fine it is facing for violating Quebec’s Building Act. The company argues the fine is too high, and therefore cruel and unusual punishment. The BCCLA was at the Supreme Court of Canada to argue in this significant appeal that in fact, no, protections against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment only apply to human beings.

As BCCLA Litigation Staff Counsel Jessica Magonet argues, “Corporations can’t benefit from these rights because their purpose is to protect human dignity and prevent physical or psychological suffering.”

We are proud of our work, which is national in scope – from opposing Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which proposes shockingly anti-democratic state infringement on civil liberties and human rights, to opposing the definition adopted in Ontario’s Combating Antisemitism Act, which would greatly narrow the scope of free expression and political expression. We will continue our critical work during these challenging times. Our whole team continues to be guided by an ethic of solidarity, justice, and equity, and this pandemic has only reminded us of how vital it is that we protect civil liberties and human rights for all. If you are not yet a member, I invite you to become one and thank you for your ongoing support of our work.

Sending good wishes,

Harsha Walia

Executive Director