Can B.C.'s human rights commissioner convince five white men at the centre of power to embrace real police reform?

Kasari Govender's 29 recommendations will ultimately be addressed by the NDP cabinet

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      This week, B.C.'s human rights commissioner issued a major challenge to the NDP government, which includes five white men at the centre of power.

      This dare—and yes, I think it's fair to call it a dare—came in the form of a report on police reform that Kasari Govender presented to a legislative committee.

      I suspect that the overburdened B.C. media will treat the report like a one-day news story, given that we're in a provincial weather emergency.

      But Govender's document, which includes 29 far-reaching recommendations, is worthy of much more than a single day of coverage.

      If the NDP government were to act on those recommendations, it would amount to a monumental change for some seriously mentally ill people, possibly saving lives.

      That's because 9-1-1 operators would call police as the last resort. Police would no longer be the default first responders in response to calls about people experiencing a mental-health crisis.

      This and many other recommendations hold potential to enhance safety for the homeless, Indigenous people, Black people, and racialized students in the K-12 school system in their interactions with police.

      Govender didn't use the politically loaded phrase defunding police.

      Instead, her report relied on a more benign term, de-tasking. She explained how social, educational, and mental-health services now performed by police should be turned over to others with more specialized training.

      How are those five white men at the fulcrum of B.C. NDP power going to respond to Govender's call for dramatic changes to root out systemic racism in policing?

      Don't kid yourself about the legislative committee being the key player. It's not.

      The committee is comprised of 10 MLAs who will merely make recommendations on reforms to the Police Act.

      Some of those MLAs, no doubt, want to join the cabinet. And one way to make it into cabinet is to write a report that will please the premier's office.

      The real decision-making power will be made in cabinet and, in particular, by these five white men:

      * Premier John Horgan, a political centrist who's never expressed a great interest in police reform;

      * Deputy Premier and Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth. He has long been a strong advocate for police chiefs who will probably want Govender's report buried immediately;

      * The premier's chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, who has long been an ally of the Vancouver Police Union. Meggs never seriously pushed back against the Vancouver Police Department's relentless requests for greater funding when he was a member of Vancouver city council;

      * Attorney General David Eby, who has done nothing to reform the governance of municipal policing through the police-board system in more than four years in this position. Eby stood on the sidelines as the family of Myles Gray sought justice—in vain—after he was killed by police in 2015;

      * and Health Minister Adrian Dix, who is the most powerful cabinet minister and, as a former NDP leader, never pushed hard for police reforms.

      Clockwise from upper left: Attorney General David Eby, Health Minister Adrian Dix, Premier John Horgan, chief of staff Geoff Meggs, and Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

      Police chiefs wield tremendous influence

      Of course, they're not the only powerful people in the cabinet.

      Finance Minister Selina Robinson, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin, and Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation Minister Ravi Kahlon are among other members of cabinet with important responsibilities.

      But when it comes to police reforms, I suspect that the five white men mentioned above—Horgan, Farnworth, Meggs, Eby, and Dix—will be the first among equals. Rankin might have some say in the matter, but he's a newcomer to cabinet.

      Some of these five white men might even use their influence, from behind the scenes, to try to shape the legislative committee's report.

      Even though voters elected many NDP MLAs of colour in 2020, most are still far from the centre of power in this government.

      I suspect that given those five white men's demonstrated lack of zeal for police reform since 2017, few of Govender's most important recommendations will be implemented before the next provincial election.

      Don't bet on Farnworth, in particular, to get too worked about amending the Police Act to require the collection of race-based and other demographic data if that's opposed by police chiefs.

      Based on what I've seen so far, I also doubt that Farnworth's ministry will accept Govender's recommendation for a policy to reduce police racial bias in traffic stops, particularly if the police chiefs object.

      The cabinet is not going to want to tick off the RCMP brass in communities across B.C. by following through on Govender's recommendation to create local civilian police boards in those areas.

      This NDP government talks a good game when it comes to racial justice. And it deserves credit for reinstating the B.C. Human Rights Commission and making Govender an officer of the legislature.

      But Horgan & Co. have been slow to adapt the institutions of power in response to demands for racial justice.

      The fact that these five white men hold such disproportionate power in the government is just one example. The makeup of the almost entirely white Deputy Ministers' Council of British Columbia is another.

      It's also apparent in the composition of cabinet committees, as contributor Martyn Brown has pointed out in this column.

      There are NDP MLAs of colour who have impressive records in standing up against racism, such as lawyer Niki Sharma from Vancouver-Hastings and longtime union activist Mable Elmore from Vancouver-Kensington.

      Why weren't they appointed to the committee reviewing the Police Act, given the extent of public howling over the VPD's decision to handcuff a 12-year-old girl and throw her in the back of a squad car after she tried to open a bank account?

      There's not a single Vancouver MLA on the legislative committee. Who made that decision?

      There is no Vancouver representation even though the VPD has been at the centre of several controversies in recent years regarding its interactions with the Indigenous, Black, and racialized communities. One of the most appalling cases involved the police shooting of Phuong Na (Tony) Du while he was in the throes of psychosis in the heart of Elmore's constituency in 2014.

      A witness at a coroner's inquest said that Du would still be alive had this witness not called 9-1-1 to report on his behaviour.

      Kasari Govender became B.C.'s human rights commissioner in 2019.
      Amy Romer

      NDP pushed to reinstate commission

      If you want to know the truth, NDP power brokers only promised a new human rights commission in the 2017 campaign after intense pressure from the South Asian community and MLA Raj Chouhan.

      When Dix was leader in 2013, the party refused to include this pledge in its platform. Back in 2013, contributor Gurpreet Singh hammered the party over its silence on human rights.

      So in reality, the white men who have so much power in this government had to be shamed and pressured into bringing back a human rights commission.

      Don't kid yourself: it's going to be a tough slog getting Govender's recommendations implemented by this crew.

      This is notwithstanding all the praise that she's receiving from law professors and others who've been paying attention to this issue for so many years.

      White people still hold a disproportionate amount of power in B.C. not only in cabinet, but also in the senior civil service and the judiciary.

      White people (including myself) don't experience policing in the same way as Indigenous and Black people, as well as the homeless and those suffering psychosis.

      As a result, police reform is often not treated by white people in the media with the level of urgency that many Indigenous and Black people and people of colour would like. (The same can be said for reforming the at-large municipal-electoral system, which puts a disproportionate number of people with anglicized names on city councils. This provincial government has demonstrated no interest in fixing that problem.)

      These are some of the reasons why I suspect that  substantive changes to police accountability to level the playing field for racialized communities won't take place with the current crew in charge of the ship.

      No charges were laid in the 2015 police killing of Sechelt landscaper Myles Gray—and to date, the names of the officers involved have not been made public.

      It will have to wait until the next B.C. NDP leadership race—or the next election campaign, if the B.C. Greens ever get around to taking this issue with the seriousness that it deserves.

      I know—Adam Olsen is Indigenous and he's the only B.C. Green on the committee. But he was also the only B.C. Green MLA on a committee that recommended an ex-cop and the long-time former director of the police services, policing, and security branch, Clayton Pecknold, as the police complaint commissioner.

      It was a status quo pick likely welcomed by police chiefs after years of having a friendly former prosecutor in charge of the office.

      It's no surprise that Pecknold, like so many others in key positions in Victoria, is a white male.

      At the time, the Straight asked members of that previous committee how many of the 56 applicants were women, Indigenous, or visible minorities. 

      I was curious to know this because three of the five members of the committee where white men who formerly worked as police officers.

      The acting clerk of the legislature at the time, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, refused to disclose this information.

      You read that right: the committee that Olsen belonged to couldn't even divulge basic demographic information about the applicants for police complaint commissioner. 

      If the members can't provide race-based information on something as simple as this, then how can we expect this NDP cabinet to impose this requirement on police forces across the province?

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