B.C. Liberals take aim at Attorney General David Eby while debating motion on anti-Asian racism

Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee focused on "narratives carefully constructed and proclaimed by members of the current government"

    1 of 9 2 of 9

      (This article is longer than what normally appears on media websites.)

      Vancouver-Langara B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee managed to turn the spotlight on Attorney General David Eby earlier this week with a motion to condemn anti-Asian racism.

      On June 7, Lee introduced his private member's motion a month after publication of a Bloomberg article proclaiming Vancouver as the anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America.

      "There were more anti-Asian hate crimes reported in Vancouver last year than in the top 10 most populist U.S. cities combined," Lee said, according to Hansard. "This is a staggering figure. Let this sink in.

      "One out of every two British Columbians of Asian descent reported experiencing a hate incident in the past year," he continued. "This should be a call to all of us to do our part to be vigilant and actively combating racism in our communities."

      He listed some of the factors leading up to that point, including the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Lee cited various government measures in the past, such as the head tax in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and legislation excluding Chinese Canadians from immigrating from 1923 to 1947.

      Then Lee moved on to the subject of rising home prices in B.C. over the past 10 years.

      "It has been difficult to have a conversation about the housing market without someone mentioning the impacts of foreign buyers, and only those of Asian heritage are typically mentioned," Lee said. "How exactly have these two topics become entirely linked in the public consciousness? Much of it has to do with the language and narratives that originated from the other side of this House.

      "Rhetoric and narratives carefully constructed and proclaimed by members of the current government, in particular, the attorney general, during his years as Opposition housing critic have directly and indirectly contributed to encouraging anti-Asian sentiment in our province," Lee alleged.

      Eby wasn't in the legislature at the time to defend himself.

      Lee went on to accuse the NDP of trying to "score cheap political points" when it "decided to fear-monger using foreign buyers as a scapegoat for all that ailed the housing market".

      Moreover, Lee stated that Eby played an instrumental role in a 2015 housing study, which "has since been revealed to have an incredibly flawed methodology that is widely considered to be racist".

      The author of that study, Andy Yan, looked at 172 housing sales on the West Side of Vancouver, with information supplied by Eby. Yan, who's of Chinese ancestry, concluded that nearly two-thirds of the buyers had non-anglicized Chinese names.

      At the provincial money-laundering inquiry in April, Eby said that he had previously apologized in an article for his participation in that study. The attorney general's ministry has not provided the Straight with a copy of the article in which this apology was reported.

      Yan's supporters then took to social media to defend the study. In the wake of this, Eby then praised Yan, now the director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, in an email to Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd.

      In 2019, Attorney General David Eby, Premier John Horgan, and former finance minister Carole James announced that a public inquiry would be held into money laundering.

      Money-laundering rhetoric raised

      On June 7 in the legislature, Lee moved on to Eby's push against money laundering. He accused the attorney general of spinning a "purposeful narrative" about how "Chinese money became synonymous with crime in our province and served to further fuel racist narratives about B.C.'s housing market".

      "Let's remind all of us as public figures of the impact of our words and actions on the people of B.C.," Lee said. "The NDP capitalized on an ugly sentiment that, unfortunately, was still held by some in B.C., and the NDP did so for their own political gain.

      "They made it socially acceptable to complain about a group of people simply because of their country of origin," the Vancouver-Langara MLA continued. "Using this kind of racially charged language, especially as elected representatives, is reckless and has real-world impacts that are playing out in front of us in the worst possible way."

      That drew a warning from Assistant Deputy Speaker Norm Letnick, who was chairing the committee meeting at the time. He told Lee that the conduct of a member cannot be canvassed in debate.

      Surrey–Green Timbers MLA Rachna Singh has been the government's chief spokesperson on antiracist initiatives.

      Singh cites "concrete actions"

      In response to Lee's comments, the NDP's parliamentary secretary for antiracist initiatives, Rachna Singh, spoke about the "heartbreaking" rise of anti-Asian racism.

      Singh, who reports to Eby in her role as parliamentary secretary, said she has heard stories of women being spat upon and seniors being pushed and being targeted with racial slurs.

      "We are, as government, trying to bring out the resources to help eliminate racism," Singh, the MLA for Surrey–Green Timbers, said. "It is not just with COVID-19 that we are seeing the rise of anti-Asian racism. As the member has pointed out, systemic racism has been imbibed in our society, and that's what we need to tackle.

      "It is important to create that space," Singh continued. "It is important to talk about these issues. That's why we started the anti-racism awareness campaign, making that space, making talking about racism much easier, because it is not an easy topic to talk about, even for a racialized person like me. It brings a lot of emotions, a lot of trauma within us."

      Then she cited "concrete actions" advanced by her government, including an antiracism awareness campaign and plans to launch an antiracist hotline.

      "I don't think this is a partisan issue. It is an issue that affects us all," Singh said. "These are our communities, and we all need to stand up together for that.

      "I really appreciate creating this space, Member, but also really hoping to work in a collaborative way with all of you, with all the members of the Legislature, whichever side of the House they sit on, to work on this issue, because it affects us all," she added. "These are our communities. These are our people, and we need to work together to fight racism."

      West Vancouver–Capilano MLA Karin Kirkpatrick (seen with husband Murray and daughter Kaelan) was among those who questioned Eby's role in a 2015 study written by Andy Yan.

      Kirkpatrick mentions daughter in the debate

      The Liberals then continued their offensive on Eby. West Vancouver–Capilano MLA Karin Kirkpatrick again raised the 2015 Eby-Yan housing study. She mentioned in her speech that she has a daughter of Asian ancestry.

      "The reality was foreign buyers this last year have barely registered," Kirkpatrick said. "Yet, prices have been rising more quickly than ever.

      "In 2018, foreign purchasers represented only 2.92 percent of all transactions," she added. "Parents like me have to worry that their children will be victimized simply because they're Asian."

      North Vancouver–Lonsdale NDP MLA Bowinn Ma was ridiculed by former B.C. Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite in remarks to B.C. Liberal MLAs last year that many took to be sexist and ageist.

      NDP MLA brings up Sultan retirement party

      The next speaker, Nelson-Creston NDP MLA Brittny Anderson, didn't respond directly to Kirkpatrick's comments. Instead, Anderson focused on the responsibility of white people, including those in the legislature, to respond to someone who makes a racist comment.

      From there, Anderson raised the issue of an older white man's retirement event, without mentioning former B.C. Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan by name. She noted that one of his colleagues (former B.C. Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite) told a story about a younger woman of Asian descent (NDP MLA Bowinn Ma). Anderson said that this younger woman was laughed at and sexualized because of her kindness to him.

      "What makes it worse is not one person stood up and said: 'What you are saying is racist and sexist and the fetishization of young women of Asian descent needs to stop.' No. They all laughed along," Anderson said.

      "Today, I ask you when you witness racism, please say something and do it immediately. Our actions speak louder than words."

      Anderson's speech didn't dissuade the B.C. Liberals from continuing to go after Eby. Kelowna West MLA Ben Stewart accused Eby of blaming foreign buyers for all the problems he observed in the housing market.

      The minutes from Hansard show that Letnick reiterated his earlier comment that "the conduct of members cannot be canvassed in debate".

      "You may, however, bring charges of a personal character by substantive motion," Letnick said. "So we just caution all members to be careful on their debates."

      Last month, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation released these statistics about foreign buying of residential real estate in recent years in selected Canadian cities.

      Stewart, however, didn't let up, accusing the NDP in the past of trying to "galvanize prejudicial and racist attitudes towards people of Asian descent, giving these views greater legitimacy in the public sphere, when such sentiments should never have been seen as acceptable".

      "The NDP have never been quiet about their disdain for people they described as foreign buyers," Stewart declared. "They never shied from resting most of the blame of the housing crisis squarely on the shoulders of this group."

      To support this statement, Stewart cited comments that Eby made in a 2015 Globe and Mail article about how the market had become international and what an "awful vision" that was for the future of Vancouver.

      "In a 2016 interview with the BBC, he further characterized the influence of foreign buyers in our housing market as: 'An international freak show. It's so obvious what is happening in our market here'," Stewart continued.

      "This kind of language was seen throughout the NDP messaging and demonstrates the extent to which the NDP was set on adopting this narrative, which struck a chord with many British Columbians who felt disenfranchised and the changing demographics of their communities."

      B.C. Liberal MLA Ben Stewart was twice warned by the deputy speaker against calling into question the motives of the attorney general.

      Stewart's subsequent comments, which spoke to Eby's motives, drew a second rebuke from Letnick. He warned Opposition MLAs that this would be the last time he delivers a caution.

      "Next time I will just stop the debate and move on to the next speaker."

      Stewart responded that Eby's quotes were a "fact".

      "The bottom line is that the fact is that we need to do better," he said. "That's what we're here to try to say."

      Jagrup Brar (centre, with Major Sidhu and David Eby at a Vaisakhi celebration) criticized the B.C. Liberals for targeting the attorney general when he wasn't in the legislature.
      Charlie Smith

      Brar talks up government's accomplishments

      The next speaker, Surrey-Fleetwood NDP MLA Jagrup Brar, talked about measures that the government has taken to respond to racism and provide antiracism tools. That included the restoration of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which was abolished by a previous B.C. Liberal government.

      As well, Brar talked about how the government has increased grants to more than 190 organizations to tackle racism in their communities.

      "We will legislate race-based data collection," Brar noted. "Race-based data collection is about dismantling systemic racism by patterns, identifying where gaps and barriers exist, so that we can provide more equitable services for our communities."

      Brar also stated in his speech that it's "completely unacceptable" for the B.C. Liberals to blame someone (i.e. Eby) who was not in the legislature and therefore could not respond.

      Letnick interjected to tell Brar that he cannot mention if someone is in or not in the legislature.

      B.C. Liberals continued their verbal attacks on Eby as NDP members spoke up to defend the government's record and cast aspersions on the B.C. Liberals' record in government.

      As one example, Vancouver-Kensington NDP MLA Mable Elmore reiterated that the B.C. Liberals had abolished the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

      Kamloops–South Thompson B.C. Liberal MLA Todd Stone was yet another of the B.C. Liberal speakers who zeroed in on the Eby-Yan study.

      "This report fuelled the suspicion that foreign buying, especially by people of Chinese background, were the main factor driving up housing prices for everyone else," Stone claimed. "Despite others frantically pointing to a series of other factors that were actually driving up housing prices, like tight supply of new housing at the local level, or ongoing net immigration of Canadians moving to B.C., or historically low interest rates and sharply increased money supply, those that were wedded to their useful political conspiracy theory refused to be swayed."

      He noted that some pushed back against the Eby-Yan study, including former mayor Gregor Robertson, former Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation president and CEO Eva Siddall, Abundant Housing Vancouver advocate Jennifer Bradshaw, and Georgia Straight contributor Ng Weng Hoong.

      "The sad reality today is that the Metro Vancouver housing market is hotter than ever, even with a sharp decline in immigration and a slowing economy during the pandemic, and the current government isn't doing anything about, it despite promising to make housing affordability their number-one priority," Stone said. "It's not good enough to simply express regrets.

      "The 2015 study in question should have never been published, and those who played a role in it should acknowledge their part in building this conspiracy theory that foreign buyers, and especially Chinese, are responsible for ever-increasing housing prices," the B.C. Liberal MLA added. "They should acknowledge their role in spinning this conspiracy theory and how it has stoked anti-Asian racism, and they should apologize publicly and unreservedly."

      Stone's comments were followed by speeches by Surrey-Panorama NDP MLA Jinny Sims and Richmond–North Centre B.C. Liberal MLA Teresa Wat before the meeting was adjourned.

      Richmond–North Centre MLA Teresa Wat wants a journalistic organization to study the role that media has played in whipping up anti-Asian hatred.

      B.C. Liberal urges more action against racism

      On May 27, Wat wrote a letter to Premier John Horgan and Eby asking the NDP government to implement a 10-point plan to fight racism

      Topping the list was a call for the activation of a legislature standing committee on education "to review policies and actions that have contributed to the rise in racism".

      In addition, Wat urged Horgan and Eby to ensure that the committee "conduct a comprehensive examination of the current state of harassment and racism and recommend legislative and police measures".

      She also wanted the premier and attorney general to ensure that the B.C. Prosecution Service treat racist incidents as a priority in the determination of charges and prosecutions.

      The ninth recommendation from Wat was to apply to the National NewsMedia Council—a voluntary, self-regulatory ethics body for the industry—to conduct a review of media coverage. 

      According to Wat, this would be to "determine the extent, if any, to which language, visual depictions and editorial content may have conditioned people to accept racial stereotyping and racial intolerance".

      Her final recommendation was for the premier and attorney general to call upon Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google, and major media outlets in Canada to "implement a coherent public awareness campaign on racism".

      "The continued expression of empathy and support from political, business, and public institutional leaders in the wake of the massive ramp-up of racist slurs, harassment and violence is welcome," Watt wrote.

      "But the true measure of British Columbia's response to the surge in racism will depend on how quickly serious policy measures are undertaken at various levels of jurisdiction to educate the public, punish the perpetrators and provide a solid source of support for those who are affected."

      (An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned that Deputy Speaker Spencer Chandra Herbert chaired part of the meeting. This was due to the assistant deputy speaker being described as the "deputy speaker" in Hansard.)