B.C. Civil Liberties Association announces resignation of executive director Harsha Walia

The longtime activist was subjected to misogynistic and racist abuse on social media after a controversial tweet

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      The B.C. Civil Liberties Association issued two statements on Friday (July 16).

      In the first, the board of directors stated "with heavy hearts" that it had accepted the resignation of executive director Harsha Walia.

      Walia was appointed as executive director in January 2020, two months before the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization.

      "Harsha built and deepened important relationships with BCCLA’s partners and community stakeholders. She worked with integrity to strengthen our policy positions especially on policing, Indigenous self-determination, and immigration," the board stated in its message. "Harsha is responsible for significant improvements to the structural integrity of the organization including financial stewardship, HR, and advancing our strategic plan."

      In addition, the board credited Walia for demonstrating a "deep commitment to civil liberties and human rights". 

      Her departure comes after she endured withering—and often racist and misogynistic—criticism over social media for a post in response to churches being set on fire.

      Her phrase, "burn it all down", has been used by some activists dating back many years as a call to dismantle structures of violence against marginalized people. But her critics, including some in the media, purported that she was endorsing arson.

      In the second message, board president David Fai expressed regret in a letter on the BCCLA website for a misunderstanding created by a tweet by Walia that "left some people with the wrong impression about the values and principles to which we adhere".

      "We regret the misunderstanding that was caused by the tweet and apologize for the harm the words caused," Fai stated. 

      He added that the organization acknowledges "the anger, frustration, and sadness many people feel after the confirmation of over 1000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at various residential school sites".

      "During the aftermath of the tweet, we encountered a wave of hateful commentary, fueled by the fact that our executive director is a racialized woman leader," Fai wrote. "Our executive director and staff were exposed to inexcusable racism and misogyny and threats to physical and mental safety. We did not engage with those voices and are prioritizing the health and safety of staff.

      "We have also taken time to gather feedback within our organization and with our community partners. These events have been difficult, but we are emerging stronger and more committed to our work. We are back with the same fearless truth-telling that our supporters and detractors know us for."

      Last year, Harsha Walia received an antiracism award from Spice Radio CEO Shushma Datt.

      Walia defended by UBCIC

      In the midst of the controversy, Walia's defenders included the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which put out the following tweet on July 4.

      Walia is an author and activist who's been involved with many community organizations over the years, including the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, No One Is Illegal, the February 14 Women's Memorial March Committee, the Olympic Resistance Network, and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy. In 2020, she received an antiracism award from Spice Radio.

      As the BCCLA executive director, Harsha Walia shone a light on the harmful effects of colonialism, discriminatory police street checks, and "unlawful" RCMP exclusion zones in the wake of injunctions obtained by resource companies.

      During her tenure, it was questioning by a BCCLA lawyer at the provincial money-laundering inquiry that led attorney general David Eby to reveal that he had previously apologized for his role in a 2015 study authored by housing researcher Andy Yan.

      The Eby-Yan study focused on non-anglicized Chinese names in connection with the purchase of houses in a small part of the West Side of Vancouver.

      Eby, a former BCCLA executive director, testified that his apology appeared in an article several years ago. The Straight has never seen this article and the Ministry of Attorney General has not provided a copy of it more than two months after being asked to do so.