The pandemic has amplified inequality, but Kasari Govender says there is light at the end of the tunnel
By Spencer van Vloten
After 17 years of inactivity, the Office of the BC Human Rights Commissioner has returned. BC Disability's Spencer van Vloten talked with the province's new Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, about the status of human rights in BC, barriers to change, and how we can take some positives from the pandemic.
Spencer: Throughout the pandemic we have been advised to stay home for our safety and the safety of others, but home can be a difficult topic for people with disabilities and many others who are precariously housed.
Currently, persons on disability assistance in BC only get a $375 shelter allowance, and the total BC disability assistance is barely over $1000 a month for most people, making even basic needs hard to satisfy.
Do you believe an increase in PWD assistance is required in order for disabled British Columbians to have their human rights respected ?
Commissioner Govender: An adequate standard of living is not protected in BC law, but it is protected in international human rights law that Canada has signed onto, and so therefore should be enforced. But clearly this is not being provided when social assistance is not lifting persons with disabilities above the poverty line.
A major issue is that we do not have enough protection for basic economic rights, and this creates a gap through which people--disproportionally disabled persons, Indigenous persons, Persons of Colour, Women, and LGBT2QSIA persons--are falling.
Spencer: Persons with disabilities, as well as the other demographics you mention, are used to not having choices, or at least not having the same amount of choice that others have, in terms of where they live, where they work, what activities they participate in, and so on.
Is this lack of choice consistent with a robust and enforced system of human rights laws? How does choice factor into human rights?
Commissioner Govender: Choice is huge---our ability to make choices that are not constrained by factors like disability, age, gender and race is a basic human right and protected legally.
Where you live, the medical services you receive, these are all matters of human dignity, and if your choices here are being constrained based on something like disability then you are having protected rights violated.
As I noted, a big problem lays in the lack of protection for people’s economic rights. There are protections against discrimination based on personal factors such as disability, race, religion, and so forth, but often discrimination shows itself economically; for example, because of discrimination people experience for being disabled or Indigenous, they earn less, which then leads to, and is used to explain, so many other negative outcomes.
Yet there is not a strong system in place at the moment to offer and enforce rights protection based on economic condition; that needs to change and we are committed to making that happen.
·Spencer: What then must be done to ensure that human rights are enforced and make a positive difference in people's lives, rather than merely being words on paper or ideas in our heads?
Commissioner Govender: There are important enforcement mechanisms –the BC Human Rights Code establishes the BC Human Rights Tribunal—so if you have a complaint based on the Human Rights Code, and think you have been discriminated against because of your disability or gender or another personal characteristic, you can take it to the tribunal.
But what BC lacked until a year ago, when the Human Rights Commission was brought back by the NDP government after 17 years, was a system to the address systemic roots of inequality in the first place, and that is what our office has been set up for. We have already made progress and have a lot of work to do.
Spencer: As commissioner, what have you been doing and what will you be doing to ensure that the rights of disabled persons and others are respected?
Commissioner Govender: The office had ben removed by the Liberal government and was gone for 17 years, so much of our work has been resetting the office's foundation so we can move ahead effectively.
One big thing has been breaking down data so we can look at particular demographics and find out who is using what services, who is impacted by specific policies and the pandemic, and other factors. The more we can break down data and see who is being affected and in what way, the more it helps us develop a response to inequality.
We also issue reports and guidance to public servants, conduct awareness campaigns, and provide education about human rights.
We are especially pressing for economic condition to be in human rights code—to stop discrimination based on poverty—which would go a long way in bolstering the rights of disabled persons and many others.
Spencer: What are some of the challenges you face in doing this work? What barriers hold up human rights progress in BC?
Commissioner Govender: Establishing the office during pandemic is challenging for sure, at a time where COVID has increased existing inequalities.
That said, I must also note that there have been some areas of opportunity that have arisen from the pandemic.—it can be a moment of change and transformative growth because so much has been disrupted.
We have seen some increase in social assistance and disability rates; we have seen greater awareness of human rights issues and more people talking about these. While this is not sufficient, it has created momentum that I believe can help carry us through to substantial, long-term change.
Spencer: If someone wants to know more about human rights, and their rights as a person, are there any particular resources you would recommend? And how can someone stand up for their rights?
Commissioner Govender: We are working on a number of accessible resources, and a key priority for the coming months is producing plain language material on human rights.
CLAS also runs workshops about how to enforce rights and to file complaints and go through that process. These would be helpful to self-advocates and anyone who wants to stand up for their rights or the rights of a loved one.
To learn more about the Office of the BC Human Rights Commissioner, click here!