It may get tougher to file a human rights complaint in the territory, and this is a good thing, says Human Rights Commission director Heather McFadyen.
“We have an extremely low threshold, and you won’t find this anywhere else in Canada,” she said.
McFadyen was responding to the first of 25 recommendations from the non partisan select committee on human rights, which held public consultations in 15 Yukon communities.
The committee was established to review and report on ways in which the territory’s 21-year-old Human Rights Act could be improved.
“Our act is out of date — we’ve fallen behind,” said McFadyen.
One of the recommendations is to remove the term “mental retardation” from the act. And that it “be reviewed with a view to using more contemporary language.”
The committee also recommends extending the deadline for filing a complaint to 18 months from six.
“We have so many spread out, rural communities, and Nunavut and the NWT both have two years to file complaints,” said McFadyen.
The recommendations even suggest giving the Human Rights Commission the ability to accept a complaint after the expiration time, if there are sufficient grounds.
Although it recommends people have more time to file complaints, the gate should no longer be wide open to those who believe they’ve been harassed or discriminated against, according to the recommendations.
There need to be “reasonable grounds” for such beliefs.
And the act should “expand the circumstances under which the commission shall not investigate a complaint,” it recommends.
“It would raise the threshold for filing,” said McFadyen.
“Right now, there’s no discretion. And there’s points where, if we had it, we would use it.”
But the commission doesn’t only struggle with claims based solely on belief; it also worries about the lack of information on fundamental human rights.
In a 2007 youth survey, the commission found that 40 per cent of students said they knew “nothing” about human rights, while 55 per cent said they knew “a little bit” about them.
“Even if they know ‘a little bit’ it doesn’t mean they know when their rights have been infringed,” said McFadyen, who agrees with the recommendation “that the act more strongly promote human rights and responsibilities, awareness and education.”
It should be taught in school, and it should be taught early, she said. “Because lots of people leave school by Grade 9.
“It’s the responsibility of government to create a culture of human rights that can be used by the education system.”
Although she’s happy with the recommendations, McFadyen is worried.
After turning in its report, the committee’s mandate was completed.
So, now what?
“I’d like to see the committee remandated to continue their work and finish what they started,” she said.
“I’d hate to see the report fade into the distance,” added Human Rights Commission chair Melissa Atkinson.
“After 21 years of standing still, we need something comprehensive and modernized.”
It is impressive that the three committee members, NDP MLA Steve Cardiff, Liberal MLA John Inverarity and Justice Minister Marian Horne, were able to agree on the 25 recommendations, said McFadyen.
Now we just need to see them implemented, she said.
The committee didn’t have much time, added McFadyen.
And due to its own budget constraints, the Human Rights Commission was not able to attend all the community meetings.
“We applied for funding, but it was turned down,” said McFadyen.
The commission’s funding is a line item in the department of Justice budget.
And McFadyen would like to see this changed.
One of the recommendations is “funding of the Yukon Human Rights Commission and the Yukon Human Rights Panel of Adjudication be removed from the department of Justice.”
The public needs to be confident that the commission is impartial and at arm’s length from government, particularly when investigating complaints against the government, said McFadyen.
But Justice is usually the department that represents government in human rights hearings, so the commission is not impartial, while Justice is providing its funding, according to the commission’s annual report.
A number of these recommendations can be done as “quick fixes,” said McFadyen, who hopes to see them come up this sitting.
Other changes may take longer to effect, she said. Premier Dennis Fentie said there’s nothing more important than human rights, added McFadyen.
“So it’s just a matter of if people want to see these changes happen.”
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