Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 19: Dismantling systems of harm — with Darcie Bennett

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Am Johal, Darcie Bennett

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Melissa Roach  0:06 
You’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project recorded out of 312 Main. This podcast is produced by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Maria Cecilia Saba  0:17 
Below the Radar brings forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:21
Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building, and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

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Melissa Roach  0:42
In today’s episode, Am Johal sits down with Darcie Bennett to learn more about the dangers of stigma against homelessness and substance use in law, health care, and policy making. Darcie is the co-author of Project Inclusion, a report from Pivot Legal Society that looks at systemic barriers to the health and safety of people experiencing the impacts of poverty and homelessness across the province. Thank you for listening!

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Am Johal  1:11 
Thank you for joining us on Below the Radar. This week we’re with Darcie Bennett, who for a number of years worked with the Pivot Legal Society and is now doing other work, but welcome, Darcie.

Darcie Bennett  1:24 
Thanks for having me.

Am Johal  1:26 
Yeah, Darcie, I wanted to begin with, recently you were involved in launching a report in December of 2018 called Project Inclusion: Confronting Anti-Homeless and Anti-Substance User Stigma, a fairly major report. I’m wondering if you can sort of talk about how the project came to be and what some of the findings were.

Darcie Bennett  1:49 
Alright, so Project Inclusion was a major initiative of Pivot Legal Society, and it was really based on a recognition that, as an organization that was sort of born and raised in the Downtown Eastside and had historically been looking at legal and human rights issues in this neighbourhood, the organization was getting more and more calls from communities across the province. So communities that were dealing with homelessness, communities that were dealing with substance use and some of the harms associated with that, for people, and didn’t have the kinds of supports and networks that exists in this community where people had been doing grassroots work to improve the housing situation, to bring about harm reduction, those kinds of things.

Darcie Bennett  2:39 
So the organization was getting those kinds of calls, taking on some legal work, but there hadn’t been sort of the deep listening that had happened at Pivot in its early days in the Downtown Eastside. Pivot’s sort of theory of change is really based on the idea that people who are experiencing harm are the experts, and that if we start by listening to those stories and build out the legal strategy from there, we’re going to get optimal results. So Project Inclusion was an opportunity to really pull back and do some of that listening, and to figure out what does it mean to be homeless outside of Vancouver, outside of the Downtown Eastside? How is the opioid crisis impacting people who live outside of Vancouver, and what else is happening that we’re not even aware of? So that is really where the impetus for the project came. The way that the project was organized was really looking at how BC is broken up into 5 health authorities. So that’s sort of the general framework, and what we were able to do was select two communities in each of those 5 health authorities. Now one of the first things we realized is that BC is huge — 

Am Johal  3:53 
Mhm, I grew up in Williams Lake, so I’ve been…

Darcie Bennett  3:54 
You grew up in Williams Lake!

Am Johal  3:55 
Yeah, I played basketball and volleyball, went to a lot of northern communities up there.

Darcie Bennett  4:00 
It’s a big place, so when you start to think about picking two communities in the northern health region, already you’re just leaving vast areas of the province untouched, but we were able to put into place some criteria. We looked at things like bylaws in various communities, we reached out to service providers, because one thing we did need to have was an anchor in that community that we could reach out to. So I would say one of the weaknesses is that we didn’t actually reach those communities where there was no one to talk to, nobody who sort of wanted to engage with us, there was always a champion in each community that we went to. And it was really an opportunity to go in agenda-free and talk to people who are sort of living the intersections of the crisis that are going on around drug policy.

Am Johal  4:49 
Yeah, and so what were your findings as you went around the north and to some of the smaller communities in relation to some of the findings you already had from the work that Pivot does in the Downtown Eastside? What were overlaps and what were differences as you went around the regions?

Darcie Bennett  5:06 
So, I mean I think the overarching overlap across the province is that these issues are everywhere — they are not geographically specific. I think it was really shocking for us to realize, as people who live in Southern BC, that people are sleeping rough in northern climates. We were in the north in late August and it was already getting cold. We realized that everywhere we went, issues around policing came up. I would say that was by and large, no matter where we went, what the specific issues were in that community, the bulk of what we heard was about policing. And that makes sense because when you’re living in public space, that really is that point of interface for people. A lot of what we recognized was that in the Downtown Eastside, there’s a culture of activism, peer engagement, where there’s a little less shame and stigma. People often had a lot of internalized shame and stigma when they were talking to us. There wasn’t sort of the same level of people feeling empowered to talk about their rights as people who were experiencing homelessness or people who used drugs. So we definitely noticed that gap, and the other thing that we noticed was that in every community we were in, there was one or two service providers who were doing an amazing job with very minimal resources, so that was actually a really amazing thing to see wherever we went across the communities, in these communities.

Am Johal  6:52 
I imagine in having the kind of concentration of services that are in the Downtown Eastside, there has been this culture of advocacy that’s really important, and an articulation of the issues happening that oftentimes circulate in the media. But when you go places like New Westminster or even Whalley in Surrey, that even there the amount of advocacy, access that people have is far less, or that the NGOs oftentimes that are operating are not as visible in the public eye for complex reasons that include the inability to be visible, and I imagine in small towns, there’s a kind of collegiality to being in a small town where issues like policing or systemic issues, there may not be the capacity to do that kind of advocacy in that local context.

Darcie Bennett  7:49 
What we found in a lot of communities was that it just wasn’t even safe for a service provider to being that kind of advocacy, so a lot of stigma, a lot of sort of public conversation — that’s actually that we did end up doing, was media scans and looking at what the public conversations were in a number of these communities — so a lot of room for even very basic  basic education work that maybe has happened here in Vancouver over time, you know, often only one media outlet locally, so maybe not very balanced considerations around that. And then also for people, there’s not a lot of opportunity for sort of anonymity, so in a small community if you are homeless and you speak out, you’re also very, very visible in a way that you just aren’t in Vancouver.

Am Johal  8:44 
So in terms of the process of compiling the report, what were some of the main findings that you, do you have recommendations to government and other bodies to?

Darcie Bennett  8:55 
Yeah, so the report has over twenty recommendations, so the way that the report is structured, we started by painting a snapshot of sort of what does it mean to be somebody who is experiencing homelessness or somebody who was criminalized because they used substances in BC, and then from there we really found three major areas that our recommendations tend to be centered around. So the first was policing: that was overall the major issue that came out for people. We were in 8 RCMP municipalities and 2 municipal police force municipalities, so we weren’t really able to parse out the differences but we did definitely see some sort of preliminary differences in RCMP jurisdictions in terms of people feeling like they had access to police complaints, things like that. And then within that policing piece, we also looked at the web of policing that people are experiencing. So yes, it’s the sort of ‘the police is the formal institution’, but layered on top of that in a lot of communities, you’re dealing with by-law officers, you’re dealing with private security.

Darcie Bennett  10:04 
The second set of recommendations and stories and findings really centre around the cycle of criminalization that people who use substances and people who live outdoors are dealing with. So really focused on court-imposed conditions, conditions of bail, those sorts of things. So in every community that we went to, the issues of ‘red-zones’ came up, so those no-go areas that people are told they are not allowed to spend time in. And in pretty much every community, even though they are supposed to be tailored to specific offences, people could draw the no-go zone or the red zone on a map for us, which was a really interesting finding. And that tended to be where people’s food was, where access to harm reduction was, where access to accessible medical treatment was, so that was really major.

Darcie Bennett  10:57 
I think the thing that surprised us that we hadn’t gone in thinking about was the extent to which sobriety conditions and no-carry paraphernalia were impacting people as well. So those are conditions where if somebody is before the courts they are told that they can’t carry any kind of harm reduction supplies, labelled as paraphernalia, and particularly in the north, we talked to a number of Indigenous people who were criminalized based on their alcohol use, actually, around the role that perpetual sobriety conditions was having in terms of keeping them trapped in this cycle of criminalization. So that was sort of the second set of findings and recommendations.

Darcie Bennett  11:38 
And then the third set, we looked at service gaps. We made a decision not to look at things like housing stock adequacy of income assistance rates — not because those things weren’t important and they didn’t come up, but because they are so well documented, that we know that has to happen. But what we really tried to look at is the other ways in which there’s barriers to accessing things like hospitals. We didn’t go in asking people about hospitals, but in every community we went to, we heard about barriers in terms of accessing hospitals, so that became an area that we looked at. We looked just at the barriers to accessing income assistance, the barriers to getting on disability assistance. The number of people we spoke to in small communities with pressing health needs and disabilities who weren’t able to access disability was really, I think, another shocking finding. 

Darcie Bennett  12:34 
Then the other thing we did with this report is we actually pulled back and we said ‘What’s going on in all of these places? What’s sort of the underlying thread to all of this?’ And that’s where we really landed on this concept of stigma, and our goal was not just to say ‘Oh you know, people stigmatize’, but really to look at how stigma becomes embedded in law and policy. So our sort of final overarching chapter and recommendation looks at BC creating a process for really auditing for when stigma starts to shape the legislative agenda, for when stigmatizing beliefs start to shape the policy that we create. And so, that’s sort of the big overarching recommendation, is we need to be thinking about stigma, we need to have a more complex understanding of it, and move beyond thinking about it as something that we hold as individuals and actually see how it’s embedded in our law and policy.

Am Johal  13:32 
Yeah, I’m wondering if there’s other jurisdictions that you drew on to take a look at what’s happening here — are there areas that are doing interesting work in this area in terms of recommendations, and also I’m wondering if areas of human rights policy in BC or nationally could be useful in terms of advancing a kind of a lens by which to advance some of these pieces of the policy level as well?

Darcie Bennett  14:00 
Yeah, so there is a really important human rights piece to this and sort of something we can draw on other jurisdictions in Canada. So one of the real deficits in terms of human rights protection in British Columbia is that we don’t protect people on the basis of social condition. So that’s a recommendation that we’re making. So what that means is, if you experience discrimination, say, at the hands of a private security company and the real underlying basis for that is your apparent poverty, that you’re sort of coded as somebody who is experiencing homelessness, we actually don’t have a human rights mechanism to protect against that discrimination. And that’s something that came up really clearly in terms of starting to think about how we can actually take on some of these issues that we’re seeing? So just from that sort of perspective that’s a really important piece, and it’s something that other jurisdictions in Canada do, and that we recommend.

Darcie Bennett  15:10 
We’re also are sort of at a moment in British Columbia where we’re moving towards bringing back a human rights commission. So I think there’s a real opportunity to start looking at some of these things systematically, expecting that somebody in a small community in Northern British Columbia is gonna bring forward a human rights complaint because of what happened in a hospital is not realistic. I think there’s really an opportunity to look at this systematically and particularly around issues of homelessness and substance use and that intersection in people’s lives.

Am Johal  15:48 
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I know that when the NDP was in opposition  provincially there was a Private Members’ Bill brought forward by Jenny Kwan at the time — so certainly in opposition, the NDP government supported that position and in the context now with a minority government, certainly would, I think, be an important time to put something like that forward again. And people like Margot Young at UBC Law and others, a number of NGOs have been supportive. In the work that you were doing, did you also draw on some of the work — I know that the BC Civil Liberties Association have done some work related to policing in BC — and I’m wondering if there were some overlaps or connections with some of the work they’ve done related to identifying policing issues.

Darcie Bennett  16:33 
Yeah, so we definitely looked at a lot of the policing literature that is out there, a lot of the reports that have been done, especially when you get outside of Vancouver, there’s not a lot of work that’s been done in BC. We were able to look at things the BC Civil Liberties Association has done. We also relied on Human Rights Watch’s work with Indigenous women in Northern communities, and there was a lot of overlap there in terms of the issues that they’d identified and in terms of the issues that were coming up. In terms of Indigenous women feeling targeted by police, I think something that was very marked for us was the use of cells and how much time — Indigenous people that we spoke to — were spending, being taken into cells, being taken into the “drunk tank” as they described it. So there was a lot of overlap with that work that had already been done there in terms of those issues. In terms of the reasons that people don’t call the police, even when they’re very vulnerable, so all of that was sort of, that came up in the interviews.

Am Johal  17:36 
When I first met you, Darcie, I think you were still working on your PhD at the time at Pivot Legal Society, some time before the Olympics, I’m pretty sure it was, and so you’ve spent quite a bit of time working in the neighbourhood and broader than that, and I think you did Sociology prior to that. Wondering if you can sort of talk about, in seeing the vantage point of law and policy related work in the inner city neighbourhood, the kinds of things that stuck with you and the kinds of things you reflect on in the work that you’re able to do through Pivot and other organizations in terms of the possibility of law reform and the places that which you’ve run into barriers in terms of trying to work at that level in terms of policy and legal change in terms of how it connects to social justice?

Darcie Bennett  18:29
Well that’s an easy question! (laughs) If I am to sort of think back, and I first started at Pivot in 2006 — yeah, and it was while I was working on my PhD — I think that the intersection between sort of community advocacy and communities getting these issues even on the legislative agenda and the outcomes that we get is so important. So lawyers, sociologists who are talking about policy, we can do all this work in a vacuum, but it really is that community mobilization that keeps the ball rolling and gets it on the legislative agenda, so I think that’s really important. And what we realized, I think, with Project Inclusion and going around the province is that it takes even when you get precedent setting cases, that work needs to happen. Like, communities need to be empowered to make it their own. So it was so interesting to talk to people in communities around BC and realize the things that we sort of took for granted. For example, even being able to access clean harm reduction supplies just weren’t even their realities. So the idea that we’ll, you know, get a big win in Vancouver and that will trickle across to other communities, we need to be empowering people across the province locally to really be champions for those things.

Darcie Bennett  20:10
We were really astounded, I think, by the role that local by-laws play in peoples’ lives. So you sort of have things working — not even at cross purposes, because that imagines that it’s not intentional — but you know, you have on the one hand, conversations say at the federal level or the provincial level around responding to the opioid crisis through harm reduction, through overdose prevention services, all of those things. And then you have other communities in BC that are actually trying to use their, say, their zoning powers for example to stop these things. So we really do need to be empowering local communities to take these issues on and to make space for the people who are experiencing these issues, to step into that, and to realize that we’re always vulnerable to steps being taken backwards if there’s not somebody there watching, if there’s not somebody there who is able to support people, to hold people to account. So I think that’s really what we recognized was that people were operating — it didn’t really necessarily matter to them what the decision and insight said, or that we had a provincial government that was really supporting an effective overdose response, because that wasn’t the reality in their community.

Am Johal  21:47 
Now when you were at Pivot Legal Society — I mean, what a dynamic organization and such a phenomenal history with people like John Richardson who founded it, Katrina Pacey, David Eby, who went on to become now our Attorney General, Laura Track, I think is at BC Civil Liberty Association — is there some particular campaigns or legal cases that you remember particularly in terms of what excited you about being there that you really think of as victories?

Darcie Bennett  22:20 
In terms of the real victories, I think that it’s the legal victories. So you can look at a case like Pivot’s involvement in the Bedford Decision around Canada’s prostitution laws. That was a really important legal victory. There’s been, you know, legislation put into place, but it really affirmed a lot of what women in this community were saying about safety and the impacts of those laws. Related to that, another important legal victory was the SWUAV case, which actually changed the law of standing in Canada. So that was actually a case that was originally meant to challenge the prostitution laws and ended up in the process of women being told they couldn’t organize as a collective and bring that case forward, actually making it easier for marginalized people to get in front of the court with public interest issues.

Darcie Bennett  23:23 
So those were really important legal victories, and as important as any of that is just the shifting conversation that can happen through those kinds of cases. I think that the work that happened in terms of bringing those cases before the courts, in terms of having public conversations, in terms of shifting the language that people were using was just as important. I remember actually, during the SWUAV case, when it made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, I had travelled to Ottawa with a member of SWUAV. And we were sitting in the Supreme Court and one of the justices used the word ‘sex worker’. And I think that shift is as important as the legal victories in terms of how we sort of impact stigma. A lot of the work that has happened in terms of encampments — sometimes it’s hard to see the impacts of the victories, because people are still experiencing homelessness. But again, in terms of positioning people who are experiencing homelessness as members of their communities with a right to occupy space, as well as the legal victories, just that sort of shift in thinking and the way we think and talk about these issues, I think has been just as important.

Am Johal  24:48 
And Darcie, what are you up to now?

Darcie Bennett  24:52 
What am I up to now? I am up to sort of a combination of things. So as you were saying, I have been with Pivot for a lot of years. I also spent some time with EcoJustice in there, so a lot of time in the nonprofit sector, and in particular the nonprofit law sector. And it is very hard, long, challenging work. The systems that we’re up against are well-funded, well-resourced, there’s a lot of demand for change work and what I recognized through my time is that doing that work, preparing, people coming into that work to be able to be sustainable in the long haul is sort of a piece of work in it’s own right. So for the last year I’ve been training as a coach. I’ve been doing a lot of work around organizational development, and now I’m finding ways to sort of share that with people who are doing this work so that these organizations can be strong and resilient, they can take on these very long term battles, and that we can grow the pool of people who are out there doing this work.

Am Johal  26:13 
There’s a few dozen of those organizations right here in this building at 312 Main, in the cop shop. Just want to say thank you so much for joining us, Darcie.

Darcie Bennett  26:21 
Thank you for having me.

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Melissa Roach  26:26 
Thank you again to Darcie Bennett for coming in and sharing her thoughts and research with us. You can read the full report, and learn more about the work of Pivot Legal Society, by visiting them at Thanks as always to our production team, including Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Maria Cecilia Saba, and myself, Melissa Roach. Thanks also to Davis Steele for our theme music, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 17, 2019

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