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West Van MLA brings bill to delete racist land covenants

There are likely tens of thousands of the offensive covenants in B.C.

West Vancouver-Capilano Liberal MLA Karin Kirkpatrick has introduced a bill in the Legislature that would force the province to begin removing any covenants on B.C. land titles that forbid people from owning properties based on their race or religion.

Such discriminatory covenants were once used to ensure new developments remained “white only.” They can be found in neighbourhoods across North America up until the 1960s, although West Vancouver is known to have many of them in the British Properties. They have been legally null in B.C. since 1978 and the BC Land Title and Survey Authority will strike through any offensive clauses at the request of property owners at no cost.

But Kirkpatrick’s bill would take the process a step further and put the obligation on the province proactively to seek them out and then delete them completely, not just cross them out, which currently would be illegal.

“Because you can see them and read them ... it is hurtful and it is a continuing form of racism,” Kirkpatrick said, adding that she’s heard from many constituents on the matter. “It’s not just good enough to strike it out. It’s not just good enough to make a note that says it’s not enforceable. We’ve got to figure out a way where you don’t even see it when you look at that title.”

Putting a legal obligation on the province to do the work is one thing. Actually carrying it out is another. B.C. has millions of active land titles, most of which are stored on microfilm, and there are likely tens of thousands of the discriminatory covenants on title around B.C. Kirkpatrick said, making the process of searching for and editing them highly laborious.

When District of West Vancouver staff studied the matter, they concluded a seek-and-destroy operation on land titles in just that municipality would cost about $1 million. But the LTSA has been experimenting with a machine learning algorithm that scans and reads old land title documents, hunting for where the language may be present. That could make the process a lot easier, Kirkpatrick said.

Academics and activists have warned against simply deleting the discriminatory covenants without a commensurate effort to educate the public about their use, lest it become a form of forgetting history. Kirkpatrick said she sees both sides of the debate but decided to move ahead with the bill after consulting with her Chinese daughter who would have found herself excluded from properties in past decades.

“We still know that this is something that we’ve done - this colonial system, but we don’t have to look at it and read it every day, and especially those people who are impacted directly by it,” she said. “I just felt if I had some tools I could use to try and rectify it, that I would want to use those.”

Most private members bills never reach debate in the Legislature, and the government of the day has control over which ones do, so even fewer bills from the Opposition become law, Kirkpatrick acknowledged.

But, she said, the NDP has taken up many anti-racism initiatives in recent years and she is hopeful they will allow this one to proceed in 2023.

“I would think that government will have a difficult time saying no,” she said. “Because I do believe that everybody on both sides of the house feels that this is the right thing to do.”

If the NDP doesn’t allow Kirkpatrick’s bill to move ahead, she hopes they introduce one of their own that would achieve the same result.

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