Vancouver legal activists blame tribunal dismissal on witness dearth

Pivot, Vancouver drug users group argue 'downtown ambassadors' discriminate against poor people

A Downtown Eastside legal advocacy agency says getting low-income people to file complaints against private patrol workers and have them testify in a hearing is a difficult exercise when pursuing justice.

That obstacle was at the root of a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision Monday that dismissed a complaint from the Pivot Legal Society and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users over concerns with the so-called "downtown ambassadors."

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"Obviously, in hindsight, we would have benefited from having more direct testimony because that was the part the tribunal found was lacking," said lawyer Scott Bernstein of the Pivot Legal Society. "But the reality of the situation is that it's very difficult to get marginalized people-people with drug addictions, people who are homeless, people who have mental health issues-into the formalized environment of a court or a tribunal hearing."

Pivot and the drug advocacy agency filed a human rights complaint against the quasi-security guards on behalf of homeless people and those with drug addictions engaged in panhandling, binning and other activities downtown.

Their complaint alleged the red-jacketed patrol team, who interact with tourists, liaise with businesses and monitor homeless people, were guilty of systemic discrimination of marginalized people. In particular, the agencies alleged the patrol members were harassing people and forcing them from public spaces.

But tribunal member Tonie Beharrell noted in her written decision that neither of the two advocacy groups provided witness testimony to the allegations.

"In the end, there was no evidence from any member of the class directly affected by ambassadors' actions," Beharrell wrote. "While I fully accept that the complainants' task in this regard was an extremely sensitive and challenging one, the evidence before me was simply not sufficient to establish discrimination."

The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association created the ambassadors' program in 2000. Charles Gauthier, executive director of the association, said the ruling reaffirms the association's long-held position that it wasn't engaged in systemic discrimination of marginalized people.

"We weren't getting complaints of that nature and, if we had, we would be dealing with them," Gauthier said. "We've always maintained that our program is out there to assist. It's helping most people that need help. But at the same time, it's about the respect that should be given to private ownership, private property rights. And we try to balance that off."

Businesses belonging to the association pay the program's $600,000 annual tab. Genesis Security operates the 20-member team, which works downtown, Yaletown and South Granville from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Gauthier acknowledged the ambassadors have security training and are licensed under the ministry of public safety. But, he said, they are not security guards, per se.

He acknowledged, however, the job of an ambassador involves asking unwanted people to move off of private property. In the case of a homeless person, an ambassador will point out services available. If that fails to get the person to move, the police are called, Gauthier said.

"But frankly, that doesn't happen often," he said, noting they regularly interact with homeless people, giving them warm clothing, food and direct them to services and shelters. "There's a good understanding between the ambassadors and the street homelessness population. There's a lot of respect there."

Ambassadors also have training in first-aid, mental health and customer service. Some have had substance abuse problems themselves and come from difficult backgrounds, Gauthier added.

mhowell@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Howellings

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