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West Van calls on province to end racist land titles

If West Vancouver were to pursue it alone, it would cost residents more than $1 million.

Searching for and striking out the untold number of racist and discriminatory covenants on land titles in West Vancouver would cost residents $1 million, according to a district staff report, so council will be asking the province to lead the project.

The British Properties area is known to have the covenants that forbade people “of African or Asiatic” race from owning homes there, but similar clauses appear on land titles in developments around the province until as late as the 1960s.

In January 2020, District of West Vancouver council passed a motion from Coun. Marcus Wong, the first person of colour elected to council in West Vancouver, directing staff to investigate how much it would cost to pull the municipality’s 17,000 plus land titles and have the discriminatory language struck.

“This is something that has been hanging over my head to know that where I live, a generation ago, was not something I could have done,” Wong said at Monday's (May 30) regular meeting of council.

The covenants have been void since the late '70s, and the Land Title and Survey Authority will strike them free of charge, if requested, but finding them within the 40,000 microfiche rolls the province’s title documents are stored on is time consuming and costly.

Just pulling the titles of West Vancouver’s 17,000-plus land titles would cost almost $175,000 in fees owed to the LTSA. It would then cost another $16.19 each to pull individual covenants to see if they contain the discriminatory language. Staff estimate it would cost more than $735,000 in fees owed to the LSTSA alone, which, despite lobbying, the LTSA was not willing to waive, according to Mayor Mary-Ann Booth.

Adding in the cost of staff time or hiring a company to do the work, the total estimated cost is more than $1 million, or “prohibitively expensive,” staff say.

Instead, council voted unanimously Monday on a motion calling on the province to direct the LTSA to proactively search for discriminatory covenants and empower the registrar to delete and or redact them rather than just cross them out, which is all the law allows for now.

For Wong, staff’s proposed next steps were acceptable.

“I think that is the best thing we can do at this point, given that it will require an inter-governmental approach – a really collaborative way of doing things. We have a very finite amount of money in the district, so to waste that, as it were, on manually going through the files would not be the most effective use of resources.”

Wong added that it would be important to keep some copies of the offensive covenants “so we can always look back and see what the historical documents were like so that we don't repeat the same mistakes that we have in the past.”

The Land Title and Survey Authority has been experimenting with a high-tech solution, using artificial intelligence to scan digitized versions of the microfiche rolls containing B.C.’s 2.2 million active title documents and flag the discriminatory covenants it finds.

Because the offensive clauses can be found around the province, West Vancouver’s motions will also go to the Union of B.C. Municipalities, which may apply greater pressure on the province to act.

“The decision to address [at a substantial cost] or ignore these discriminatory covenants should not be left to the discretion of individual municipalities or title holders. Rather, the onus for righting these historical wrongs rests with the province of British Columbia,” the staff report from West Vancouver’s director of legislative services Mark Panneton states.

Beyond the request for UBCM and the province to take up the cause, Coun. Craig Cameron asked that district staff to make it part of their usual practice when reviewing land titles for building permits to alert homeowners to the presence of discriminatory covenants, and inform them on how they can be struck by the LTSA.

Earlier in the day, West Vancouver-Capilano Liberal MLA Karin Kirkpatrick introduced a 4,400-name petition to the legislature from West Van resident Michele Tung. The petition calls for the removal of discriminatory covenants.

Following the meeting, Tung said she feels there is more that West Vancouver could be doing, including tasking staff with making the request to strike covenants as soon as they become aware of them.

“It doesn't take much effort. It's literally just an email,” she said.

Council should also be pursuing British Pacific Properties to take on the financial burden of cleaning up the mess the company left behind in land titles, Tung added. While the covenants may be present around B.C., West Vancouver is unique in that it is known to have a concentration of them in one area developed by one company that is still in business.

“Why is the British Pacific Properties is not being held accountable for writing racist, discriminatory covenants, yet they're being given development permits now, thousands of them?” she said. “The fact that these developers still exist today, that they still profit from the people that they once excluded, is even more offensive.”

In a statement Tuesday morning, British Pacific Properties president Geoffrey Croll said his company agrees with the direction being taken by West Vancouver council and the company has begun work on ways it can assist in the effort.

“We absolutely have a role to play in having racist and discriminatory language fully removed from restrictive covenants on title of properties historically developed by the company, but we want to be part of a full solution, as these covenants are not exclusive to the British Properties and are found on properties throughout B.C.,” the statement read. “BPP is proactively identifying all the properties developed and sold by the company that have this language in the restrictive covenants so that this information can be shared with the LTSA. We are also researching other legal avenues for this language to be removed from the covenants or the covenants removed entirely if the provincial government is not able to provide the registrar of the LTSA with the ability to delete occurrences of the identified discriminatory language.”

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