Cameron Mackenzie counts himself lucky for having never been violently gaybashed. “That gaybashings are happening in Vancouver —that gaybashings are happening in our place —I just cannot tolerate and it makes me so furious,” he says.
Mackenzie was one of about 15 community members that attended the last of five forums on violence and hate-motivated crime hosted by The Centre,
The community participants were joined by about the same number of representatives of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), many of whom Det Tim Houchen says came out of their own desire to learn. “What ended up happening is people were asked to go, and then they were told, ‘Well we have enough, you don’t need to come’ and [they said], ‘No I want to come, I want to do this.'”
Peter Toppings, who helped organize the forums, thinks the collaboration between the VPD and the public was successful. “I’m encouraged by what police have indicated to me that they’ve learned, and I’m encouraged by what the community have said,” he says. “We’re getting the message that people are now a little bit more inclined to contact police and report.”
Earlier this year Statistics Canada reported that gay and lesbian survey respondents were significantly less satisfied with their local police than were their heterosexual counterparts. One of the stated goals of the recent forums was to build connections between the queer community and the VPD to encourage community members to report violence.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that our communities historically have had a volatile relationship with police,” says Toppings, “not just here in Vancouver but in most jurisdictions across North America.”
The Dec 3 forum in East Vancouver “got a little bit heated at times, with people actively displaying their hostility towards the force,” notes Mackenzie, “but at the same time, that needs to happen.”
“People need that discussion, they need to be able to vent a little bit,” he says, adding that the police “also need to know that there are lot of people who are carrying a lot of baggage.”
Houchen agrees. “We have to hear that, but we also have to express why we’re there and what we believe in too. I hate bullies, and I hate people that in the past have done things that are inappropriate. I don’t abide it and I certainly don’t condone it.”
As the program manager for Education Outreach at The Centre, Toppings says he has faith that the VPD is committed to doing the work to improve its relationship with the queer public. “I couldn’t do this work if I wasn’t optimistic about things moving forward,” he says, adding he sees “no reason why we can’t start building those relationships with other municipal police forces and the RCMP.”
The forums also highlighted the need for more witnesses to come forward and provide solid details to investigators of hate-motivated crimes. “We have to understand that our victims are not often able to provide that information,” says Houchen, “and a lot of times that knowledge really helps us prove motive.”
Houchen told forum participants that sometimes the proof of homophobic motive comes down to the attacker’s use of one word, and that when multiple witnesses give the same account, it makes the case much easier to prove.
“I just think you have a responsibility to step forward and say, ‘yes, I witnessed this,'” says Toppings. “Ultimately, if this would happen to you, you would hope that other people around you would step forward and be the witness that you would need.”
Mackenzie feels that a large part of improving safety rests within the community. “It really is up to us as the community to come together and say, ‘You didn’t report the fucking gaybashing? That was a gaybashing!’ Make the call, do something,” he says.
Members of the VPD’s Domestic Violence Unit also attended the forums to explain their commitment to protecting any person in a relationship, regardless of their gender or whether they are in a same-sex or heterosexual relationship.
“There’s been a complete absence of education, or public education, around domestic violence within our community,” notes Toppings, “and we need to remind our communities that no, this isn’t the norm, we shouldn’t have an expectation to live with violence.”
Houchen and Toppings both recommend taking measures that may prevent a violent confrontation from occurring. “We have a need to always be cautious and to be aware of our surroundings,” Toppings asserts, “and that doesn’t mean that we have to be victims, or timid, or walk around in fear. But you need to be aware of your surroundings and your first line [of defense] is to diffuse and avoid potentially dangerous situations.”
Toppings says The Centre and the VPD will use the final report on the forums to develop an action plan, noting that this is one step of many in their continued effort to improve community safety.