What’s more frustrating than the prime minister making a big show of coming to town, but only giving local reporters between themselves just one question he will deign to answer? Well, how about Yukon’s justice minister staging a news conference at Whitehorse Correctional Centre, giving a prepared statement that made no obvious point, and then waltzing off without answering a single question at all?
The Yukon saw both spectacles last week. At least Justice Minister Mike Nixon, after some prodding, did provide a later interview to the Yukon News, even if he succeeded only in further confusing matters. Maybe that’s why he apparently wasn’t allowed to speak earlier: he hadn’t gotten his story straight yet.
The issue at hand is one we’ve raised several times in these pages in recent weeks: the Yukon Human Rights Commission being barred from investigating complaints at Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
At first, Nixon declined repeated interview requests on the matter. Eventually, a Yukon News reporter buttonholed him at a constituency barbecue he was holding. Nixon, at that point, hit a snag, in that the comments he made were at odds with the position taken by his own officials.
At the time, the minister said he had no objection to human rights investigators snooping around the jail, provided other avenues had first been exhausted. Justice officials, meanwhile, have insisted that human rights complaints are nobody’s business but their own, and they can be dealt with internally or through the courts.
Nixon’s later public appearance at the jail, if it had any purpose at all, seemed to be to defuse this issue. On this point, he failed spectacularly, in that he never uttered the words “human rights,” let alone addressed the substance of these concerns.
Later, when the minister fielded questions by telephone, he contradicted himself and trotted out his department’s official position: keep out, human rights watchdogs. If inmates don’t like how they’re being treated, they can always ask for a judicial review. (The idea that a mentally ill inmate would have the resources to launch such a legal challenge is just nutty.)
While Nixon was able to produce some imaginary examples where the Human Rights Commission might be allowed on the premises, the fact remains that in the real world investigators remain barred.
There are two obvious points to be made. One, the Yukon government’s refusal to allow human rights investigators to hear out human rights complaints is shameful and abhorrent. Several such complaints have recently been made. In at least one case, an inmate who struggles with serious mental illness asserts that he’s been left in solitary confinement for prolonged periods, with little medical supervision. If true, this would be a recipe for making an already deranged inmate even more dangerous upon his eventual release, which does the public no service.
Where is the minister on this? AWOL.
Two, the Yukon government’s communications strategy, in its worst cases such as here, is idiotic and self-defeating. If you’re trying to get out in front of an issue, actually speak to it. If you’re trying to ignore an issue, don’t hold a news conference about it. Sheesh!
Instead, Nixon managed to draw further attention to an issue he clearly doesn’t want to speak about. In doing so, he prompted other news outlets – that, inexplicably, hadn’t seen the value in covering this story until then – to match with their own reports.
Yukon Party muckymucks have grumbled that this outlet doesn’t give their team a fair shake on matters such as this one. This is sort of like punching yourself in the face, then blaming someone else for the black eye. Want a fair shake? Try providing some honest answers, rather than lame evasions.
The best way to clear the air over concerns with the jail’s use of solitary confinement of mentally-ill inmates is to let the Human Rights Commission do its job. As we’ve said before, the jail’s own
Investigations Standards Office, or ISO, is poorly equipped to resolve the matter. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be conducting its third investigation into the jail’s solitary confinement policies.
To date, Nixon has created the impression of being hopelessly out of his depth on this issue. It’s time for him to get serious. As it stands, he’s only further tarnishing the reputation of the justice system he’s supposed to help oversee.