Hate incidents spiked dramatically across B.C. during first years of pandemic, inquiry finds

People are reflected in a pool of water in downtown Vancouver in October 2021. 'The pandemic marks a period in our collective experience that has been filled with fear, mistrust, division and hate,' a report from B.C.'s human rights commissioner says. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People are reflected in a pool of water in downtown Vancouver in October 2021. 'The pandemic marks a period in our collective experience that has been filled with fear, mistrust, division and hate,' a report from B.C.'s human rights commissioner says. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A new report from B.C.'s human rights commissioner has confirmed hate-related incidents rose exponentially during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting people from every corner of the province during one of the most divisive periods in its history.

The report published Tuesday showed how hate affected people across the province both at home and in public on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and more — though the spike in anti-Asian hate was "particularly acute."

"While hate is not new, the pandemic marks a period in our collective experience that has been filled with fear, mistrust, division and hate," B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender said at a news conference.

"It is also a period in which we have seen a remarkable degree of collective care," she added. "Public awareness about racism and its real impacts on the lives of racialized people has grown significantly [and] communities have stepped up to show solidarity to those most affected and to speak out against hate."

The nearly 500-page report is the result of a comprehensive public inquiry called to examine the root cause of the reported rise in hate during the pandemic and recommend potential solutions. Govender said she believes the inquiry to be the first of its kind in the country.

Incidents ranged from hateful slurs to physical attacks. The report found the government and the criminal justice system haven't been effective when it comes to holding people to account, for a variety of reasons, but community-based organizations performed better with proper funding.

Community crisis centres, for example, were able to support an increasing number of women experiencing intimate-partner violence during the early months of the pandemic after they received emergency relief funding from Ottawa.

B.C. saw one of largest increases in police-reported hate: report

Hate incidents are defined in the report as hate-motivated actions or words meant to humiliate, dehumanize and silence a person based on their personal characteristics — perceived or real.

The report said B.C. saw one of the largest increases in hate crimes being reported to police from 2019 to 2020, according to Statistics Canada figures.

The number rose from 1,951 incidents in 2019 to 2,646 the following year — a 35 per cent rise that is still likely an under-representation, given that many do not report such crimes to police.

Police-reported crimes targeting Asian populations rose 482 per cent in that year, while those against Black people went up 115 per cent.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"That was hard to read because of all the stories, and knowing Asian seniors [and] women like myself and youth were particularly targeted ... but it's really important that we're sharing that story," said Trixie Ling, who spoke out and filed a police report after a white man taunted her with anti-Asian slurs and spat on her in Vancouver in 2020.

"I think this is just the start of how we talk about accountability and healing, both within the government but also within our own community," she added in an interview Tuesday.

"I think this is pointing us to say that we all have to take a collective responsibility and action to work against hate."

Violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence, also became more common during the pandemic, though the commission noted those incidents are "rarely considered" as hate crimes under the law or in society and data is not always consistent across authorities.

The report made a dozen recommendations including a call to create a centralized system for reporting hate as well as new standards for policing, including a requirement that all police departments have at least one specialist trained in hate crimes.

The commission also called on social media platforms to make a number of changes, including overhauling algorithms to help bury discriminatory content and stop ads from appearing with hateful posts.

Data gaps exist despite 'mountain of evidence'

The statistics were a small portion in reams of proof the commissioner gathered through dozens of hearings, written submissions, polls, surveys, research reports, an in-person gathering with Indigenous elders and information requests to every police department in the province.

"Once you have traversed this mountain of evidence, it becomes impossible to deny that we are at a reckoning," Govender said.

The inquiry, which began in 2021, also found the legal system can't properly address hate crimes because of problems from the police-reporting stage of the process through to the courts.

WATCH | Anti-Asian hate rose during pandemic: 

Many don't feel safe reporting crimes to police. Those who do can be met by officers and prosecutors who are "conservative" about pursuing charges, the report said.

Based on statistics from Statistics Canada, police, prosecutors and the courts, the commission estimated "the true number" of hate incidents in the province from 2015 and 2021 to be around 20,000.

Less than a quarter of those were reported to police. Only six people were charged with hate crimes under sections of the Criminal Code specifically referring to hate propaganda, public hatred and mischief — with just three convictions.

"These numbers show that while criminal prosecution for hate crimes is one important piece of accountability, it is failing to deliver justice for most people," Govender said Tuesday.

The report did not include cases where hate was an aggravating factor at sentencing because that data isn't systematically tracked through the courts.

The complex, expensive civil justice system and severe delays with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal are also problematic.

People did, however, find help in the community. Many told the commission about how they found "strength, support and connection" in the organizations and people around them, the report said.

More action needed says advocate

The report was full of words, but not enough action items, according to Rabbi Philip Bregman.

"It's got to be actionable," he said. "When the coach sends in a play to the quarterback, it can't be 20 minutes in discussing what the play is in the huddle. It's got to be actionable. And I think the same thing has to be done in schools and in life, things that we can do on a very real basis."

Bregman was part of an event at a Vancouver high school on Tuesday aimed at helping students better understand and respond to racism and hate.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"This is the future," Bregman said. "These are the individuals who are going to be in our houses of parliament, running our schools, our businesses being involved. We here in Canada, we have a lot of work to do."

He said his group, The Other People, is educating older students, encouraging youth to"get out of their bubbles," and try to understand each other.

"Anti-racism cannot be legislated," Bregman said. "Anti-racism has to be lived, it has to be felt."