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Rob Shaw: Anti-racism hotline? The trail has gone cold

Two years after its announcement, the line isn't connected
When questioned, NDP government ministers can't say when the hotline will be operating.

How long does it take bureaucrats and politicians in Victoria to create a phone hotline?

It sounds like the start of a bad joke about government incompetence, but it’s a legitimate question that came up in the legislature recently after it was revealed that an anti-racism hotline promised by the province more than two years ago still isn’t complete.

Worse, there’s no timeline for when it might even be finished.

“I honestly don’t understand why it takes this long,” said BC United critic Teresa Wat during recent budget estimates.

The anti-racism hotline was promised in 2021, after several high-profile racist incidents during COVID-19, often targeted against the Chinese community. Anti-Asian hate crimes rose a reported 700 per cent in Vancouver in 2020, and were frequently linked to speculation about the origin of the virus in China.

The idea behind the hotline was three-fold: Allow people to report a potential hate crime via a multilingual service that was not the police; give a “culturally-appropriate” place for racialized people to report incidents of hate and receive support; and gather data on racism that the government could use in planned race-based data collection legislation to combat racism.

Sounded good at the time. Ministers trumpeted the need for the service.

“There can be no doubt we are a major hot spot for anti-Asian racism. This is unacceptable and more action is needed,” Eby said in a release on April 31, 2021.

“Even more concerning is that some people may be reluctant to report incidents through existing avenues like calling the police, which may mean we have an under-reporting of the scope of the problem. This hotline will lower the barrier for reporting incidents, helping us better direct further action and be more rapid in our responses.”

But then the whole thing stalled out and disappeared.

The need is still there, even as the pandemic has dissipated, argued Wat.

“I'm sure the minister also receives some constituents' phone calls or emails saying that they're not comfortable calling 911 because of the fact that some of them are not proficient in the language,” said Wat.

“Also they find that 911 operators sometimes are not patient enough to listen, because they might not have really some physical kind of injury but still they have the racism kind of experience.”

In 2021, it was Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives Rachna Singh (now education minister) and Attorney General David Eby (now premier) spearheading the idea.

As recently as last year, Eby told the legislature the hotline would be operational soon, and that the government had located a possible service provider called BC 211.

A year later, the file appears to be gathering dust on the desk of new Attorney General Niki Sharma and her new parliamentary secretary Mable Elmore.

“We are committed to launching that hotline,” Sharma said in her budget estimates recently. “We want to make sure that it's useful and that it's directing people to the right place and that it's meeting the needs of (the) community, which is the work that's currently underway right now.”

The attorney general’s answers suggested the hotline might be stuck in a kind of consultation feedback loop, which can happen to a project when it loses its political champion and the provincial bureaucrats default to passing papers around in a circle.

“We're working through the process right now, and we're very committed to having the hotline up and running as soon as possible,” said Sharma.

“I hope that ‘as soon as possible’ will happen in the next couple of months,” replied Wat.

Unlikely. At this pace, it will be amazing if the government hotline ever sees the light of day.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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