Three Vancouver groups that focus on civil rights and social policy have filed a human-rights complaint against the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and the city’s Project Civil City commissioner, Geoff Plant.
The complaint was filed with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal by Pivot Legal Society, United Native Nations, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, on behalf of "Vancouver’s street homeless population", according to a joint media release. The complaint alleges "systemic discrimination" by the DVBIA's Downtown Ambassadors program.
The human-rights complaint comes on the heels of a July 10 Vancouver City Council decision to fund the expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors program into six new districts.
Laura Track, a lawyer with Pivot who is involved with the complaint, told the Straight that for several months, Pivot has heard reports of Downtown Ambassadors employees operating beyond their mandate. She claimed that the Ambassadors are telling people sitting or lying down on the sidewalk to "move along", that people sleeping on the street are being woken up and told to move, and that homeless people are being told that they are not allowed in particular areas of the city.
"The main gist of our complaint is that it is a violation of people’s human rights to harass people, to tell them to move along when they are in public spaces, and to impose no-go zones on people," Track said in a telephone interview. "We feel people aren’t being treated equally by these policies."
The DVBIA declined to comment on the human-rights complaint. A July 18 DVBIA media release stated that the group was "confident its highly successful Downtown Ambassadors program will be vindicated".
In December 2007, Non-Partisan Association councillor Kim Capri led a Vancouver city council vote to expand the Downtown Ambassadors program into a 24-hour service that would be partly funded by city hall.
Capri told the Straight that she stood by her vote. "I think that the complaint is groundless," she said. "The complaint is coming from an organization who has somebody who is seeking a council seat with Vision Vancouver."
On July 10, Pivot lawyer David Eby announced that he would seek a Vision Vancouver nomination for city council.
Capri charged that the human-rights complaint was part of a political agenda and "not one that is based on fact or substance".
She claimed that in eight years, the Downtown Ambassadors have received less than a handful of formal complaints, all of which have been dismissed.
Project Civil City commissioner Geoff Plant said the complainants’ media release misstated his role and responsibilities in relation to the Downtown Ambassadors program.
But Plant also conceded that the groups’ complaint raised serious allegations about the way that the Ambassadors operate. He said that if the complainants possess evidence that supports their allegations, the city would like to see it.
"They haven’t brought it to council even though they’ve had three occasions to do it," Plant said. "If the Ambassadors are not doing the job on the street that they are supposed to be doing, then that would be a concern for the city and might cause me to rethink my work in supporting the city’s decision to fund the expansion."
In an interview with the Straight, United Native Nations vice president David Dennis emphasized the disproportionate affect that the Ambassadors’ alleged misconduct is having on Vancouver’s Native community.
"I see this as a concentrated effort to conduct an assault on poor people," he said, "to make sure that they understand that they are not welcome within city limits or within the Metro Vancouver area during the Olympics."
According to an administrative report delivered to Vancouver city council on July 10, the Ambassadors’ activities include assisting homeless people with directions to social services.
Dennis argued that it is not directions that homeless people in Vancouver need, but homes.
"These programs in the downtown area are running 24 hours," he noted. "At one in the morning, you’re not using Ambassadors to show tourists where their cruise ships are. So what’s the real aim of the program?"
According to its media release, the groups’ complaint is asking the Human Rights Tribunal to award $20 to every person affected by inappropriate conduct to a maximum of 1,000 people and to order the DVBIA to amend its policies to prohibit discriminatory tactics.
Downtown Ambassadors are licensed private security guards employed by Genesis Security. Patrol employees are recognizable by their bright-red jackets.