B.C.’s Jewish community welcomes attorney general Niki Sharma’s new anti-racism legislation—but prompter action is wanted on antisemitism

B.C. attorney general Niki Sharma on April 11, 2024. (via @NikiSharma2)

After consultations with various ethnic, faith and other community groups, including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), British Columbia’s NDP-led government tabled new legislation last week aimed at holding provincial bodies accountable for racist policies and practices.

Though largely worded to address injustices carried out against Indigenous and other marginalized communities, CIJA is hoping the Anti-Racism Act will have wider implications that extend to the Jewish community as well, particularly in light of the numerous antisemitic incidents that have occurred in the province over the past six months. 

Introduced by B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma on April 11, the act is meant to tackle systemic racism found through race-based data collection and the accounts of Indigenous and other marginalized communities. The data collection will be used by the province to create an anti-racism action plan scheduled to be released in 2026.

While the Jewish community welcomed the bill, CIJA is calling for more immediate attention after a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

“We understand that the B.C. government wants to get things right with its first anti-racism action plan, but the Jewish community is currently experiencing a drastic rise in hate. Members of the community are also looking to the provincial government to take immediate action to address the antisemitism that many have experienced in K-12 education, on campus and in the B.C. public service,” David Decolongon, associate director of policy and communications for CIJA, told The CJN.

The new legislation would require the province to strengthen checks and balances in its programs and services in hospitals, schools, courts and other public spaces.  It would give the attorney general the authority at any time to call a compliance review of any public body which is believed not to be following the law. The attorney general would also be able to issue a compliance order to any public body failing to follow the law.

CIJA also said that it looks forward to continued cooperation with the government to guarantee that the experiences of the Jewish community and incidents of antisemitism are included in its data collection.

“We are appreciative that the upcoming anti-racism action plan will include actions to be taken by public bodies toward identifying and addressing the harms of antisemitism.  The B.C. government must engage and consult with organizations and members of the Jewish community to ensure that their lived experiences inform the act’s implementation,” Decolongon said.

The government says the Jewish community will be included in discussions as the act goes into force.

“The legislation calls for the development of a whole-of-government anti-racism action plan, which will be developed in partnership with Indigenous and racialized people, and British Columbia’s Jewish community. This is an essential step forward in building a fairer and more equitable province for all,” a spokesperson for the attorney general said in a statement to The CJN.

According to a report by the Vancouver Police Department in January, antisemitic hate crimes rose in the city by 62 percent in 2023 over the previous year. Of the 47 antisemitic hate incidents reported to VPD in 2023, 33 occurred after Oct. 7.  Numbers of antisemitic incidents for this year are consistent with the last three months of 2023.

Antisemitic incidents in Vancouver in recent months include the accosting of two women by two teenage boys after a pro-Israel rally on Oct. 9. The teenagers threatened to rape the women and slice their faces.

Last fall, a man repeatedly showed up at a Jewish day school in Vancouver uttering antisemitic comments and making a Nazi salute in front of several people, including a rabbi. In March, a Vancouver man was charged for uttering threats, using antisemitic language and defacing a poster of Israeli hostages.

In November, the University of British Columbia became the target of a proposed class action lawsuit which claimed that “a well-documented history of antisemitic sentiments” had existed on its Vancouver and Kelowna campuses.

Following the government’s announcement last Thursday, Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s vice-president for the Pacific region, offered this reaction:

Broader concerns about racist behaviour in public-run institutions have arisen in recent years and are not solely part of a more distant past.  In 2020, allegations surfaced that some B.C. health-care workers placed bets on the blood alcohol levels of Indigenous patients who were entering hospital emergency rooms. Those disturbing allegations highlighted the fears within the Indigenous community of having discriminatory encounters when accessing health care and other public services.

The new legislation is meant to augment the province’s Anti-Racism Data Act which became law in June 2022.  That law allows the government to ask people questions related to their race, gender, faith, ability, sexuality, ethnicity and income. In turn, the data collected will be used to ascertain the effects systemic racism has on health care, education, the justice system, employment, social services and housing.

The public engagement process for the current legislation included more than 2,100 responses to an online questionnaire in 15 languages and 225 community-led discussion events with more than 5,000 participants.

The anti-racism legislation will apply to all public bodies in B.C., such as ministries, agencies, health-care and social services providers.  According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, under the new bill, the province must create an anti-racism committee to develop and implement an anti-racism action plan. The plan, with Indigenous consultation, will establish how the government intends to combat systemic racism, how success will be measured and what accountability measures will be put in place.

Public bodies will be required, among other provisions, to assess policies, programs and services regularly against the anti-racism framework and release annual reports to the public documenting progress made on anti-racism initiatives.

“The Anti-Racism Act, a result of wide-ranging consultations including significant contributions from my office, is vital to ensure B.C. uses the data it collects about people’s experiences of racism to advance human rights in this province and this country,” said Kasari Govender, B.C.’s independent human rights commissioner. 

“Transparency in how data is being used to address racism and the ability to hold our government and public bodies to account is essential to move from promises to action.”