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Eby’s Actions in ‘Burn It All Down’ Conflict ‘Chilling,’ Says Walia

Attorney general denies influencing the BCCLA board in meetings days before the executive director’s resignation was announced.

Andrew MacLeod 2 Nov 2021TheTyee.ca

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 .

Three months after Harsha Walia’s resignation as head of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, concerns and unanswered questions remain about B.C. Attorney General David Eby’s role in her departure.

“I’d like an apology from Eby for getting involved,” said Veronica Martisius, staff counsel on policy for the BCCLA, speaking on her own behalf and not for the organization. “He should have just stayed out of it and left it up to us.”

Eby met twice with BCCLA president David Fai in the days before the association announced it had accepted Walia’s resignation.

Martisius was part of an ad hoc BCCLA committee working on how to respond in the wake of the June 30 “Burn it all down” tweet Walia made on a personal account.

Walia had been commenting on a news story about the burning of two Catholic churches following the discoveries of unmarked graves on church and government-run residential school grounds.

As an Indigenous person, Martisius said, she understood Walia’s tweet to be a call to dismantle the system rather than a literal call to violence. Martisius is a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Brantford, Ontario, and has Kanyen’kehá:ka and European ancestry.

By mid-July, Walia had submitted her resignation as executive director, Martisius said, but some board members were begging her to stay and the ad hoc committee was still doing its work.

While Eby has said he had nothing to do with Walia’s resignation, Martisius said pressure from the attorney general ultimately limited the organization’s options.

Eby’s involvement “drove the process,” she said. “He should have known what he was doing was inappropriate because of the position he was in.... He’s in a massive position of power and influence.”

In the days before the BCCLA announced Walia’s resignation, according to Eby’s July calendar, the attorney general met twice with BCCLA president David Fai and once with Law Foundation executive director Josh Paterson.

People within the BCCLA were told that during one of the meetings with Fai, Eby let him know about the upcoming meeting with Paterson and they understood it to be a threat to the organization’s funding.

The Law Foundation is a major funder of the BCCLA, providing a $380,000 annual operating grant, about a quarter of the organization’s revenue. Both Eby and Paterson are former executive directors of the BCCLA.

According to Eby’s office, none of the conversations had to do with funding, and he got in touch with Fai because he was getting asked questions about Walia and what was happening at the BCCLA and wanted to know what he should say.

“I did express concerns to the president of the BC Civil Liberties Association about some of her social media comments,” Eby said in a July 28 interview. “He told me that the association had her resignation in hand and that they had been drafting a statement. He had updated me on that, but it was all in hand before I called him. If she’s suggesting I was involved, I was not.”

Fai has not responded to questions from The Tyee.

Paterson told The Tyee on Oct. 7 that as a former BCCLA executive director, he wasn’t to be involved in any decisions related to the organization for a period of two years, but that he could confirm, “There was no time at which the government sought to influence any foundation decision about that grantee or any grantee.”

Walia said she and Eby have known each other for more than a decade. He has her phone number, and he could have raised any concerns directly with her, she said, so it’s odd that he never called her and instead contacted Fai.

“I would expect that he would know that him requesting two meetings within just as many days with the board president would, in the minimum, create panic for the organization and add fuel to the existing fire,” Walia said.

As attorney general, Eby’s actions and words carry significant weight, she said. “I sincerely hope he and others in his position would think twice before doing anything like this again, especially because I know it has created a chilling effect on other legal organizations.”

BCCLA lawyer Martisius said it bothered her when she learned Fai had met with Eby. While Fai didn’t provide details to the committee about the meeting, he implied that Eby could impact the BCCLA’s funding, she said.

The attorney general’s office does not oversee how the BCCLA does its work, nor should it, she said. That Eby was in touch with Fai about what was happening at the organization was “very surreal” and “wildly inappropriate,” she said.

The BCCLA’s role includes holding the provincial government and its institutions accountable, and it needs to be able to do that with integrity, she said.

The BCCLA has a 60-year history that has often included taking controversial positions on difficult public policy questions regarding civil liberties and human rights.

Martisius said it became apparent the board felt it was important to appease Eby. “Fai appeased Eby by alluding that the situation had taken care of itself. He told Eby that an ‘announcement’ was forthcoming.”

The BCCLA made its announcements on July 16, two days after Fai’s second meeting with Eby.

It said that with “heavy hearts” the board had accepted Walia’s resignation.

A letter to the community from Fai released at the same time said the BCCLA supports freedom of expression but wants its messages to be clear.

“Using a particular turn of phrase in that context left some people with the wrong impression about the values and principles to which we adhere,” he said. “We regret the misunderstanding that was caused by the tweet and apologize for the harm the words caused.”

In the days that followed three board members — Ayendri Riddell, Cat Hart and Irina Ceric — resigned.

“The process by which the board came to put out Friday’s statements was deeply flawed and driven by external political pressure and threats to the organization’s funding,” they wrote. “We failed to prevent the harm caused by this process.”

The public reaction to Walia’s tweet was “largely racist and misogynist in nature” and driven by the fact that Walia is a woman of colour, they said.

“People would rather derail an important conversation about residential ‘schools’ than deal with Canada’s white supremacist history and its ongoing impacts on Indigenous people.”

Riddell, who had been on the BCCLA board for more than three years, said in an interview that the “external political pressure” she and the other two board members cited was based on Eby’s involvement.

“Eby made clear [to Fai] the Law Foundation is under the purview of the attorney general and that he was setting up a meeting with the Law Foundation in that week,” said Riddell, who was also on the ad hoc committee. “It was a really vague but clear threat.”

Ahead of Eby and Fai’s meetings, the board had decided that Walia’s tweet was made from a personal account and was in line with the BCCLA’s defence of freedom of speech, Riddell said. “We had no intention of over-apologizing for the tweet.”

But after the meetings there was a dramatic change of direction, she said. “There was immense pressure on me and others to shift our language,” she said. “We had this short amount of time to put something out that would maybe appease [Eby].”

It led to the BCCLA statement that came out sounding like an apology, but that wasn’t what the board had agreed on, she said.

Martisius said she was also unhappy with the statement the board released and was among a group of 10 staff who wrote a letter to Fai expressing their concerns about the process. They still haven’t received a response, she said.

She said she was at a July 26 board meeting where Fai admitted the meetings with Eby were inappropriate and said it hadn’t occurred to him at the time of making them that they would be.

Whatever was discussed at the meetings between Eby and Fai, the optics are bad and perception matters, Martisius said. “I think blowing the whistle on this sort of stuff is really important,” she said. “I see this as an accountability issue.”

In her view, Eby overstepped his role and the BCCLA board succumbed to the pressure. “It took our freedom away in terms of how we decided to respond, ultimately,” she said, adding that the organization might otherwise have taken a different approach.

Martisius said Walia was a thoughtful leader and she liked working with her. “She put our health and wellness at the forefront,” she said. “She just cared a lot about the community and the Indigenous community in particular, which was really refreshing for me.”

It’s sad Walia is no longer leading the BCCLA, she said. “It’s a major loss. I was very disappointed.”  [Tyee]

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