Column: What is systemic discrimination, bias and racism?

Feb 23, 2021 | Blog, Community, Governance, MLA Column | 2 comments

I am a member of the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

Parts of the Act have been amended over the years, but it has been decades since there were any major reviews of the entire legislation. With increasing pressure on the provincial government last summer to address systemic discrimination, bias and racism in policing, Minister Mike Farnworth called for the review and gave the committee a sweeping mandate.

Through January committee members have received informational briefings from several government ministries and agencies. In the coming weeks we will be expanding to wider stakeholder presentations from experts, community groups and the public.

What is systemic discrimination, bias and racism? In 2005, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal adopted a definition and Kasari Govender, B.C. Human Rights Commissioner, shared it with the committee. It offers an important frame for our work.

“Discrimination means practices or attitudes that have, whether by design or impact the effect of limiting an individual’s or a group’s right to the opportunities generally available because of an attributed rather than actual characteristics. It is not a question of whether this discrimination is motivated by an intentional desire to obstruct someone’s potential or whether it is the accidental by-product of innocently motivated practices or systems. If the barrier is affecting certain groups in a disproportionately negative way, it is a signal that the practices lead to this adverse impact may be discriminatory.”

There has been no dispute from the dozen or so senior leaders that presented to the committee over the past few weeks that there is a problem in their provincial ministries and agencies. The question is to what extent?

It is a question they all have trouble answering because the provincial government does not collect comprehensive data, specifically race-based information.

It is not a complete void, of course. We do collect better information about Indigenous people in British Columbia – and that data helps us make vital policy decisions.

For example, because the Ministry of Health has some information about the disproportionate risk COVID-19 poses to Indigenous people, they were able to change their vaccine rollout strategy to reflect that. Noting the value of this information, it makes little sense that Minister Dix would push back against collecting disaggregated demographic data to better understand how the pandemic is affecting other diverse populations. Perhaps if we had that data the vaccine roll-out would look a lot more nuanced than it is today.

With better information we can make better choices. In the darkness of information vacuums, politicians can make decisions that align with their partisan needs, and then falsely claim their decision to be the best possible approach. In this context, it is no wonder our government systems are rife with discrimination, bias and racism.

Commissioner Govender offered a handful of recommendations for the committee reviewing the police act including, “require all police forces in B.C. to collect, disclose, and analyze race-based and other disaggregated demographic data across the full spectrum of police services.”

If this government, or any future government, wants to have a shred of credibility they would move on this recommendation, not just for policing, but across the entire institution.

– Adam Olsen is MLA for Saanich North and the Islands

This was originally published in the Victoria News on February 21, 2021.


  1. Mary Leslie

    thanks for all you are doing as our representative but also in making a contribution at the provincial level as well.
    I worked as a social worker in St. Paul’s Hospital (Vancouver)’s ER and there was a team called car 67, that had a social worker or psychologist with special training in Mental Health along with Police staff, often a male and female officer. They brought patients regularly into the ER, and in so many situations, the combination, I feel, of skill sets resulted in greatly enhanced service to the families as well as patients.
    I had a lot of contact with police during that 7 years that I worked there. I feel that we do need to collect facts, but more importantly, we need to address the culture and training and selection processes for policing. There are some fine police and some also far more motivated by the power these positions “offer” and complicit in using power inappropriately. I keep wondering why the car 67 system is not being an important focus right now, in changing the over reactions we see in far too many police incidents. It is 23 years since I worked there, but I believe something similar if not identical is still operating in the VPD, which needs more attention and replication. I have a friend who is working in the VPD at a higher level, and I will see if he can shed more light on that innovative and highly valued way of policing in mental health situations.

    • adamolsen

      Thank you so much for this contribution.
      We have been speaking about the Car 67 and other similar programs. We are seeking a better understanding of how we can ensure the correct expertise is deployed to address the problem. However, Dr. Craig Norris gave our committee good food for thought. I should be clear I am not raising this because I don’t support these integrated response units however, when we put them together we need to have a multi-dimensional view of the recommendations or policy we are putting in place. Check out Dr. Norris’ contribution starting at approximately 11:00am at the link below.


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