Groups file complaint against private security guards

VANCOUVER - Private security guards that patrol downtown Vancouver on the lookout for crimes and other social ills violate the rights of drug addicts and the homeless, says a complaint filed Thursday with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

The complaint alleges the guards hired by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and known as ''downtown ambassadors'' unfairly harass addicts and limit their access to public spaces.

The unarmed guards' role, according to the association's website, includes assisting the public with directions and other questions, monitoring and deterring crimes in public spaces and reporting crime and ''quality of life'' concerns.

The complaint by the Pivot Legal Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the United Native Nations claims the guards discriminate based on the disabilities of addiction and mental illness.

And they say the guards' actions disproportionately affect aboriginals, who make up a large portion of the city's homeless population.

In particular, the groups complain the guards order people sitting or laying on the sidewalk to move and try to prevent people from looking for recyclables in dumpsters.

They say the guards humiliate people they find ''undesirable'' by following then, staring at them and taking photographs and notes for unknown purposes.

''It's a violation of people's human rights to harass them, to tell them to move along when they're in a public space,'' Laura Track, a Pivot Legal Society lawyer, said in an interview.

''This limits people's access to public space just because they are poor, or they look 'suspicious,' so we feel people aren't being treated equally.''

The allegations in the complaint haven't been tested in court.

The business association said in a statement that it was confident the downtown ambassador program will be ''vindicated.''

''We have not seen the complaint, but plan to review the documents with our legal counsel once we receive them,'' said executive director Charles Gauthier.

''We understand if the tribunal decides to hear the complaint, we will be notified and have a chance to formally respond.''

The complaint also names Geoff Plant, commissioner of Vancouver's Project Civil City program.

Plant said the complaint misrepresents his role in the downtown ambassadors program, and he said he is simply a consultant and doesn't set policy.

''I don't have any control over what the ambassadors do on a day to day basis, and Pivot ought to know that,'' Plant, a former B.C. attorney general, said in an interview.

Plant said the city doesn't condone any type of discrimination, and questioned why Pivot didn't bring their concerns to council earlier.

The groups ask the commission to declare that the guards are violating the province's human rights code and order them to stop.

And they want the commission to order the business association to pay $20 each to people affected by their actions. They also ask the association to pay the costs of pursuing their complaint.

The security-guard program started eight years ago and has expanded with the blessing of Vancouver's city council.

The downtown ambassadors, along with the business association's loss-prevention programs, have a budget $961,000 for 2007-2008 - nearly 60 per cent of the association's entire budget.

The business association is funded through a levy imposed on the municipal property taxes of downtown commercial properties.

Track said it's important that the role of private security guards be clarified before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which she suggested will put added pressure on the guards to maintain order.

''The downtown ambassadors don't have the authority to be enforcing bylaws, that's the police's job,'' said Track.