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Harsha Walia: Looking Ahead with the New BCCLA Head

A Q&A on diversity, lessons from the Downtown Eastside and the balance of civil liberties and human rights.

Andrew MacLeod 10 Jan

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

When Harsha Walia begins work Monday as the new executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, she’ll bring the perspective gained from two decades of activism on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Since 2006, Walia’s main job was as a project coordinator with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, a drop-in centre that serves up to 500 women a day.

“For me, that’s been my political and spiritual home, and really where I’ve grown up in this city,” Walia said, noting she learned a lot there, but also experienced many losses. “It is a neighbourhood that is of course under siege.”

Since 2003 Walia has collaborated with the BCCLA, an organization founded in 1962 to further civil liberties and human rights, on various causes, many of them supporting the rights of people in Canada as immigrants or refugees or aimed at holding the Canada Border Services Agency to account.

A graduate of the University of B.C. law school, Walia is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism and the co-author of Never Home: Legislating Discrimination in Canadian Immigration and Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The Tyee spoke with Walia as she looked forward to beginning her new position at the BCCLA. The interview has been condensed and edited.

The Tyee: What do you see as the role of the BCCLA?

Walia: I see the role of the BCCLA as one of the country’s oldest and foremost and most active and most effective organizations on issues of human rights and civil liberties through a range of different strategies, especially over the past few years. Of course critical legal interventions at every level — at the tribunal level, at the Supreme Court intervening as a plaintiff or as an intervenor — and also increasingly through campaigns, really engaging the public on issues of civil liberties and human rights that impact justice and freedom and equality, and really engaging with decision makers directly, not just through the courts.

What do you bring to the position that might be unique or new for the organization?

Even though I’m trained as a lawyer, I don’t really practise as a lawyer. It’s not the primary work experience or community experience I come with. I come as someone who has been engaged primarily as a community organizer, as a writer, as someone who has worked in the Downtown Eastside in a social services capacity. I think those are all very unique experiences to bring to the executive director role.

I hope to bring a more deeply-rooted community connection to the issues, especially connections to communities that are multiply marginalized — communities in the Downtown Eastside, Indigenous land defenders, urban Indigenous communities, immigrant and refugee communities, multilingual communities.

One of the things the BCCLA has taken up in its new strategic plan, which I find exciting, is an equity, diversity and inclusion lens. In order for it to be more than words, I think requires a deep commitment to listening and engaging with communities who are impacted by a lack of inclusion and a lack of equity. So what I hope to bring is some experience with that, but of course continuing to learn and serve and engage with frontline and directly-impacted communities.

What does the BCCLA do right that you hope won’t change under your tenure there?

I think a lot of what the BCCLA does is ‘right,’ which is why I’m excited to work there. I think the litigation team is incredible. The BCCLA intervenes in some really critical issues at all levels, particularly the Supreme Court, really constantly and consistently. There’s an extensive network of pro bono counsel and the staff litigation team, and I think that’s critical because B.C., compared to some other provinces, doesn’t have the same kind of funding structure to support individuals’ legal action. Having organizations like the BCCLA, as well as others — West Coast LEAF, Pivot Legal, etc. — being able to engage at that level is vitally important, so I would hope to continue to support that work.

The work BCCLA does at a policy level is also fantastic. So again, engaging directly with state actors and institutional actors to try to continue to push issues of human rights and civil liberties and raise challenges when and where necessary is vital work. There’s also a growing campaign team that’s really engaging supporters and members in the broader public on those issues and seeing what issues residents in our city care about. Those are all things I hope continue.

When you say the funding structure is different in B.C., do you mean access to funding for legal issues, especially for people living in poverty?

Yes, legal clinics in B.C. have, over the years, been gutted compared to Ontario, so absent people being able to access legal clinics for individual advocacy, then we really do need to rely on these much more systemic court cases going forward.

And what are some things you might hope will change at the BCCLA?

The lens that I bring is thinking about what are the priorities that the BCCLA wants to take, what are the key interventions that we should be prioritizing based on the concerns and needs that we’re hearing from members and also broader communities. I think I bring an additional lens; I don’t know if it’s a different one, but again emphasizing the equity, diversity and inclusion priority for the BCCLA. For me, it just means deeper engagement with members and supporters and communities and building on relations and relationships, strengthening them, growing them.

Sometimes the BCCLA takes positions that even some allies might have a tough time understanding. I’m thinking about a recent Alberta case as an example, where the BCCLA argued for the free expression rights of a student group opposed to a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. What would your approach be on similar cases and why?

I am not up to date with that specific case. Also, the board decides the direction of the organization in terms of policy decisions, so that’s certainly an ongoing discussion among the board. I should say BCCLA has been attentive to the ways in which civil liberties and human rights can sometimes be in conflict, and our positions need to be more nuanced.

I think a pressing question for all civil libertarians is how do we balance rights, especially at a time right now where free speech rights are increasingly associated — it isn’t in reality, it impacts us all — as a Trojan horse brought in as part of authoritarian creep.

BCCLA, for example, a few years ago did change its position on the Trinity Western University law school issue. The association really thought through how we balance, in that case, freedom of religion with the rights of queer and trans communities. One of the things that was really hopeful for me was the fact that BCCLA went through the rigorous process of rethinking what its position meant for human rights and dignity and how we engage in the balancing act between competing rights, and I think the fact they changed their position, for me was hopeful.

I advocate for thinking more deeply about human rights alongside civil liberties, while protecting against state encroachment and violations of civil liberties that impact us all.

It’s possible of course to support the student group’s right to free expression while also supporting a woman’s right to choose, but if there’s a question for an organization like the BCCLA of resources and where to focus...

One thing I’d like to look at that we don’t often talk about is systemic connections to freedom of speech. So issues like red zones, one of the conditions frequently put on people going through the criminal system that prohibits them from going to certain areas. For example, in the Downtown Eastside, red zones are common among residents with criminal charges. If you have a red zone of a four-block radius where you can’t go, then that impacts your freedom of mobility, that impacts your freedom of expression, and essentially your whole life.

How do we understand freedom of speech, not just the right to free speech or the counter, which is the right not to have hate speech, but meaningful freedom of speech and the role of other systemic barriers in society that essentially create barriers to freedom and liberty? I’m not saying anything definitively from the perspective of BCCLA, but I think it’s something we can all think about as civil libertarians.

The BCCLA has been raising awareness of the province’s Community Safety Act, warning that the government may implement it soon. From your work in the community, what’s wrong with the law?

The Community Safety Act was passed in 2013. It didn’t take effect then, but now it’s been reintroduced. One of the key provisions is that it allows homeowners or neighbours to anonymously complain about alleged activities or behaviours at what the government refers to as “crack shacks” or “nuisance properties.” It creates a situation where residents of a particular home are put under surveillance as a result of not only what may or may not be happening in the home, but really on the basis of who they are and the assumption about what they are doing in the home.

The main thing concerning about the law, BCCLA and a number of other organizations maintain, is it really puts people’s housing at risk. Those whose housing would most be put at risk would be communities that are already vulnerable to homelessness, particularly Indigenous women who face some of the deepest impacts of housing insecurity. Their housing is already insecure and they’re already targeted and surveilled, so anonymous complaints from neighbours would disproportionately affect them as well as other racialized and poor people. It really is a cycle into homelessness.

Especially in the context of the provincial government having legislated UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, any legislation that increases the vulnerability and lack of safety, especially for Indigenous women, Indigenous trans and cis women, and their children, is something that absolutely should be off the table.

You’ve done a lot of work on the Canada Border Services Agency over the years. What’s wrong with how that organization does its job and how can it be made more accountable?

From BCCLA’s perspective, the primary issue with the CBSA is it’s the only major law enforcement agency in the country that has no civilian-led independent oversight. It has broad powers to govern over all people, citizens and non-citizens alike, but its overreach, its law enforcement agenda, really disproportionately impacts refugees and undocumented people and migrant workers.

We see that through CBSA’s activities, but also through the governance structure of detention. Canada is one of the only countries in the Western world where there is no real time limit on detention and no meaningful legal mechanism to challenge prolonged and ongoing immigration detention. The entire structure that governs the lives of non-citizens through, for example, CBSA and detention is something that needs to be taken incredibly seriously because the impacts on liberty and human rights are immense. It means people are held in detention centres, sometimes for decades. It means you may face stripping of your rights to citizenship. Advocacy with respect to CBSA is one part of ensuring that the rights of non-citizens and residents of our communities are as rigorously upheld as everybody else.

The BCCLA has been a leading advocate for improving policies around the use of solitary confinement. Why?

The Supreme Court of Canada found that the practice of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional. BCCLA and others argued that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment and prisoners are deprived of legal safeguards. Solitary confinement has a particularly discriminatory impact on Indigenous people, as well as people with mental health or physical health issues. And solitary confinement really is punitive. It serves no legal function towards rehabilitation.

The prison process around solitary confinement is arbitrary, with no independent review of placements, so working towards the end of solitary confinement is vital in ensuring the right to liberty and dignity for prisoners. Places around the world are thinking about the horrific impacts of solitary confinement on prisoners, in terms of recidivism but also the deep psychological impact and the trauma that it compounds.

Again, in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, UNDRIP and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the fact that a disproportionate and growing number of people not just in prison, but also in solitary confinement, are Indigenous peoples — often jailed as a result of poverty-related crimes, means that we’re not addressing the root issues of why people are in prison and why we’re imprisoning Indigenous peoples at all.

If we want to be in an era of reconciliation, then we need to be lifting up Indigenous people’s rights and affirming rights to land and self-determination, and not reinforcing punitive policies of colonial containment. Ending solitary confinement is one way we ensure a commitment to reconciliation in a meaningful way.

In the search for ways to address homelessness, there’ve been calls recently to return to institutionalizing people suffering with mental illness. Based on your work in the Downtown Eastside, what are your thoughts on that approach?

People’s rights are impacted when they’re institutionalized against their will and against their consent. That’s definitely an issue. A mental health approach that permits involuntary admission or coercion, such as use of restraints or seclusion, and denies people a review process, infringes their rights. There’s a separate issue, which is the fact that people seeking voluntary support often don’t have it because there’s a lack of health care supports and spaces. For me the issue hinges around consent and upholding patient rights.  [Tyee]

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