It’s not often that a piece of legislation as obscure as the Vital Statistics Act becomes a focus of political debate in the territory. Over the past week, the Yukon Party government’s handling of two different matters involving that particular law help highlight how our politicians are perfectly capable of doing the right thing when they feel so inclined.
First, the Yukon Party should be applauded for its decision to amend the Vital Statistics Act to allow gay couples to be registered as parents on birth certificates.
The move was prompted by a human rights complaint filed by Cai Krikorian and Corinne Gurtler. Krikorian recently gave birth to a baby boy after using an anonymous sperm donor. Gurtler then learned that, for her name to appear on the birth certificate, she would first have to adopt the child.
This is clearly discriminatory, and as such runs afoul of the Yukon Human Rights Act. Men in heterosexual marriages are presumed to be the father of children when anonymous sperm donations are concerned. But not so for gay couples.
Health Minister Doug Graham has pledged to see the legislation updated by the end of this sitting. The Official Opposition managed to make itself seem a bit desperate for attention, meanwhile, when Jan Stick called on the government to make this change after she had been informed it intended to do so. (The NDP maintains it raised this fuss to ensure the government would keep its word. But to a jaded outsider, it would be easy to conclude they sought to claim some credit for a decision the government had already made.)
Yet, on another matter also involving the same law, Graham insists that change can’t come quickly, because amending legislation takes time.
This other matter involves the government’s difficulties in releasing information to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is seeking to identify children who died or went missing while attending residential schools.
Thanks to our current legislation, the information released by the territory won’t be as detailed as in other jurisdictions. That’s because the Yukon government cannot release a person’s cause of death until 100 years after they’ve died. It’s the most restrictive law in Canada.
The Yukon Party has pledged to do all it can to help the commission. This promise was reiterated by the government’s support of an NDP motion that repeated as much, which called on the territory “to take all necessary measures to expedite the release of data requested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Now the government is making a mockery of that promise by refusing to amend the law that is proving a barrier to the full disclosure of records.
It’s hard to say what exactly is gained from this obstructiveness. Heaven forbid the Yukon Party actually curry a bit of good will with its First Nations, whose members, needless to say, are in many cases still haunted by the many tragedies that occurred at residential schools.
The most persuasive explanation to be mustered out of this mindlessly missed opportunity is that our government MLAs are often simply on autopilot, following instincts that err towards favouring the status quo.
This impression is further reinforced by the government’s apparent indifference to proposal made by the the territory’s privacy czar, which would not only elegantly resolve the problem with releasing documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also ensure that the public has better access to other information it deserves.
This change would allow the privacy commissioner to release otherwise exempt information, if she deemed it to be in the public interest to do so.
Public-interest overrides are a common feature in the access-to-information laws found in the provinces. They are rarely triggered, but have proven their value when they are used. In Ontario, such an override has been used to release records concerning the safety of a nuclear generating plant, preservation of heritage buildings and the salary information of senior police bosses.
But the Yukon Party has typically foot-dragged in response to any proposal to expand the powers of the privacy czar, and this case seems to be no different.
Recall how a string of privacy commissioners, who have all doubled as the territory’s ombudsmen, have complained about how their jobs could only be properly performed if they were paid for a full work-week, rather merely having it treated as a part-time job. In the end, it took the abrupt resignation of our current privacy commissioner’s predecessor, Tim Koepke, to pressure the government into making that change.
It’s sad to think that our current commissioner will probably have to apply similar pressure tactics if she wants to see any movement on her proposal, as sensible as it is.
It certainly would be nice to see more of the same responsiveness on display with the government’s accommodation of Krikorian and Gurtler, and less of the more general obstructiveness that has marked other decisions. But we aren’t holding our breaths.