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Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister Adrian Dix look on as Premier John Horgan talks during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria on Jan. 22, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Premier John Horgan said B.C. will improve the way police and prosecutors combat hate crimes in the wake of new data showing incidents targeting East Asian people exploded last year in Vancouver, with many being targeted for the devastation wrought by COVID-19.

New police data presented at Thursday’s Vancouver Police Board meeting show these incidents began rising after lockdown measures to combat the pandemic last March, with a total of 98 cases in 2020 compared with a dozen the year before. These attacks on East Asian people contributed to the doubling of all hate incidents reported by the Vancouver Police Department last year from 142 such cases in 2019.

At an unrelated news conference Thursday on Vancouver Island, Mr. Horgan said the province’s Public Safety Minister and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth has reached out to police to emphasize the importance of recommending charges to prosecutors in hate-motivated cases. The Premier acknowledged it is more difficult for police to prove a suspect was motivated by hate and that such crimes are more difficult to prosecute, but said offenders “will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The provincial government is also working on anti-racism legislation, he said, though he could not confirm any specifics as the parliamentary secretary leading that push is still consulting with different groups as to what the new law should contain.

Queenie Choo, the CEO of SUCCESS, a non-profit based in Vancouver’s Chinatown that helps new immigrants, said far more hate-fuelled incidents have likely gone unreported.

“I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “What are the consequences when people behave like this?” Ms. Choo asked. “Are people being held responsible for their behaviour?”

Last year, Statistics Canada reported the vast majority of hate crimes remain unsolved by police, with just 31 per cent being marked “cleared,” or solved, by investigators in 2018. That was up slightly from the rate of 28 per cent the year prior, but still lower than the 40-per-cent success rate police typically have solving other crimes.

The Globe and Mail contacted more than a dozen police departments across the country last summer to see if they reported a similar uptick in such attacks amid the global pandemic that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Few of the forces could provide statistics, but many said they are investigating specific cases of East Asian harassment amid the pandemic.

Constable Tania Visintin, a Vancouver police spokeswoman, said her department began appealing to the public early in the first wave of the pandemic for help in solving some distressing hate crimes against East Asians, including the assault last March of a 92-year-old East Asian man with dementia who was pushed out the doors of a busy convenience store.

“In the past year, we have further increased our contact with the East Asian community,” Constable Visintin said in an e-mailed statement. “We have also developed a pamphlet in Chinese that explains the different ways community members can connect with police officers to report hate crimes or hate incidents.”

After hate speech was scribbled on the windows of Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre last May, the department put a special trailer with elevated cameras in that block of Chinatown to deter future incidents or capture them on video. A graph provided by the VPD shows incidents spiked that month, with 29 reports, and continued to remain high until they once again dipped into single digits each month in August.

Provincial Crown spokesman Dan McLaughlin said just a single hate-crime charge was approved by prosecutors in the province last year – an incident in which someone was publicly inciting hate. He added that while there are no prosecutors in B.C. specifically assigned to hate-crimes cases, there is a designated group of eight government lawyers that meets each month with the RCMP’s hate-crimes unit, and also advises their colleagues dealing with these offences.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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