Human rights act ignores Yukon youth

A gay youth under the age of 14 can’t assert their sexual orientation and file a related complaint with the Yukon Human Rights Commission.

A gay youth under the age of 14 can’t assert their sexual orientation and file a related complaint with the Yukon Human Rights Commission.

The Yukon Human Rights Act doesn’t recognize young people’s sexual preferences.

And this is a problem, says RightsNow! For Yukon Youth.

Comprised of a small group of Yukon youth, RightsNow! hopes to challenge this and similar human rights deficiencies in the territory with a new project geared toward teenagers.

RightsNow!, in partnership with the Yukon Human Rights Commission, is launching an internet campaign to educate young people about social justice issues in the territory.

With a weblog, www.rights-now.com, and a Facebook group, several volunteers will encourage youth to ask questions about their rights and help shape policy.

Staff at the commission will respond to questions posted on the blog, which launches this weekend to coincide with Bringing Youth Toward Equality’s youth conference.

It’s important to expose where young people lack rights, said volunteer and online co-ordinator Jessica Thiessen.

“If a youth is being harassed or discriminated against because of his or her sexual preference but they’re not over the age of consent then they have no recourse to file a complaint,” she said.

A youth could go to the commission for support, but they would have to challenge the human rights act in court and most kids wouldn’t want to go through a long and public court case, she added.

The Justice department is reviewing the Yukon Human Rights Act and the commission is seeking input from young people.

Contributions to RightsNow! could help reform the act, said Thiessen.

“We need input on amendments that might be made to the act,” she said.

The act was established in 1987 to protect people from discrimination on the basis of gender, age, or ancestry.

The commission investigates complaints made under the act.

From April 2006 to March 2007, the commission received 84 complaints and received 300 phone requests for human rights information or advice.

Surveys in high schools have shown there isn’t a high level of awareness about human rights legislation, said commission director Heather MacFadgen.

“Many people don’t know about their rights or where to go if there’s a problem,” she said.

“You can’t use them if you don’t know about them.”

The commission is providing RightsNow! with some funding, technical support and staff volunteer hours.

A $2,000 donation from the Yukon Employees’ Union helped establish the two-month project.

Interest in human rights is high. Many high schools have social justice clubs, but the focus is often on international issues such as fair-trade, genocide in Darfur and poverty in the developing world.

Domestic social justice issues are often ignored, said Thiessen.

“We’re trying to make sure kids have an idea what their rights are so they can assert these rights,” she said.

Topics that could be up for discussion on the blog include sexual harassment, bullying, free speech and homelessness.

“There are young women in Whitehorse trading their bodies for shelter — that’s a huge human rights violation,” said Thiessen.

Turning human rights into something more than “just words on paper that aren’t used” is a challenge, said MacFadgen.

“Young people do care about these issues, it’s just a matter of finding a venue that works for them,” she said.

“Youth engagement in politics is quite low — just look at voter turnout numbers — so it’s important to use a medium like a blog or Facebook that’s relevant to them.”

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