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Head of B.C. Civil Liberties Association resigns after ‘burn it all down’ tweet controversy

Global News logo Global News 2021-07-17 Simon Little
Harsha Walia wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Harsha Walia. © BC Civil Liberties Association Harsha Walia.

The executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association has resigned following intense controversy over a recent social media post in the wake of a string of church fires.

The group's board of directors announced on its website Friday that it had accepted Harsha Walia's resignation "with heavy hearts."

Read more: Head of B.C. civil liberties group under fire over ‘burn it all down’ tweet

"Throughout her leadership, she demonstrated a deep commitment to civil liberties and human rights and furthered our work on equity, diversity, and inclusion," reads a statement attributed to the board.

"Her leadership, vision, and relationships with staff, board members and community partners will be deeply missed."

Video: ‘There are so many heartless people’: Church in B.C. First Nations village destroyed by second suspicious fire

Walia, a long-time advocate for migrant justice, Indigenous rights, equality and economic justice, was appointed executive director for the organization, which fights for civil liberties and human rights in January 2020.

Earlier this month, she became the centre of a social media firestorm, after sharing a news article about a pair of Catholic churches burning down with the comment, "Burn it all down."

Read more: Northern B.C. First Nation’s church destroyed by 2nd fire in one week

The fires were the latest in a string of suspicious church burnings since the initial discovery of more than 200 children's remains at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Walia locked her Twitter account amid the backlash, and later said the comment was intended as a figure of speech and not meant to be taken literally.

At the time, the BCCLA board stood with Walia, defending her right to free expression and saying it accepted her comments were meant as a metaphorical attack on the system that created residential schools.

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But in a "letter to the community" posted Friday, board president David Fai apologized, saying he regretted the "misunderstanding" over the tweet and "the harm the words caused."

"Words matter. Context matters," Fai wrote.

"The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association supports the cherished right to free expression, and as an organization we want our messages to be clear. A tweet by our executive director on her personal account failed in that regard."

The letter goes on to say in the aftermath of the tweet, both Walia and BCCLA staff were subjected to a torrent of racism, misogyny and threats.

Read more: ‘Of course it’s suspicious’: 2 more Catholic churches burn in B.C.’s Southern Interior

The incident proved divisive on social media, with many arguing the tweet promoted violence, hatred and religious discrimination.

Others argued anger was an appropriate reaction to the residential school discoveries, that "burn it all down" is a common phrase used by activists, or that people were getting more upset about the tweet than the colonial oppression of Indigenous people.

At the time, B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth described the comments as "disgusting and reprehensible," and said they did "nothing to bring about reconciliation."

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs supported Walia amid the firestorm, calling her a "highly respected and valued ally," and adding it stood with her in condemning "the brutally gruesome genocide of residential ‘school’ system."

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