Human rights commission lacks clout

The Yukon Human Rights Commission is weak. It has little clout compared with commissions in other Canadian jurisdictions.

The Yukon Human Rights Commission is weak.

It has little clout compared with commissions in other Canadian jurisdictions.

And its act is 20 years old.

“We don’t have some of the same powers that other jurisdictions do,” said human rights director Heather MacFadgen.

“We’re certainly interested in strengthening and improving our act.”

In Alberta, human rights officials can walk into a premise and order that documents be produced for copying, said MacFadgen.

The Northwest Territories’ commission can’t enter premises without consent, but it does have authority to order the production of documents, as do many other jurisdictions, she said.

But if the Yukon commission requires documents that are not forthcoming, its only recourse is to apply to court. And the court may, if it’s convinced they are relevant, order the documents.

But the commission didn’t exercise this option in Cheryl Clarke’s case.

A heavy machine operator, Clarke registered a complaint with human rights in 2000, after experiencing discrimination on the job.

“I gave the commission critical submissions and documents that appeared to validate my complaint,” said Clarke.

“But the commission didn’t even interview my two key witnesses.”

When Clarke questioned human rights, she was told it had none of these documents on file.

“My submissions are stamped ‘received,’ but the commission had nothing on file, and there was nothing in the investigators notes about my witnesses,” she said.

“And I don’t know if it’s just incompetence — I think the human rights commission is biased.”

Clarke was also told the commission planned to take her case to the Yukon Supreme Court to gather some important documents, she said.

But it didn’t happen.

During the human rights investigation, Clarke was suddenly offered the winter work she wanted.

Shortly after this, her case was dismissed.

“It was basically, ‘Here’s your job; go away — case closed,’” said Clarke.

Things need to change, she added.

“It’s a weak human rights act — there are so many holes.”

The commission doesn’t have the power to make people co-operate, said Clarke

And because it created the commission, the government knows it doesn’t have to co-operate with it, she added.

“The commission is not an independent body — officially it is, but unofficially it’s all streamed through the government,” said Whitehorse resident Joanne Goold.

“And it’s a conflict of interest, as far as I’m concerned.”

Goold considered approaching human rights with a complaint, but was discouraged.

“From what I can see, a person puts their case in and makes a statement, then it’s out of their hands.

“Next, there’s a huge case built against them, which they can never really refute, then, generally, it gets dismissed.”

Rather than following effective policy, the commission seems to act out of convenience, said Goold.

The commissioners are doing their job, she added.

“It’s just the nature of the beast that things function this way — it’s the nature of the human rights act in the Yukon.”

In the last 20 years, the human rights act has only been amended once.

“When we came to the legislature in ’98, we were looking for four amendments,” said MacFadgen.

 The amendments were: protection against publication of hatred; protection against discrimination based on source of income; protection under gender discrimination for violence directed at women, and better provisions for and clarification of the commission’s duties.

But the legislative assembly only passed one of the four amendments — protection against discrimination based on source of income.

It would have been groundbreaking if the commission could have established protection under gender discrimination for violence directed at women, said MacFadgen.

At the time, there wouldn’t have been any other commission that had this, she said.

Lacking laws protecting against publications of hatred, the Yukon commission was already way behind.

“At the time, we were one of the few jurisdictions that didn’t have this protection in our human rights law,” said MacFadgen.

“And I would say we are even more alone today.”

Because territorial law doesn’t offer any protection against hate publications, MacFadgen fears the Yukon is an attractive place for hate mongering activities prohibited elsewhere.

In other jurisdictions, like BC and Ontario, there have been reviews of the act as a whole and big changes made, she said.

 “And it’s something our commission has been talking about and looking at. We’re going to have a planning meeting in September to look at our approach to reviewing and looking at our act.”

But the Yukon commission is small and it’s hard to dedicate staff to a review, said MacFadgen.

“Because we’re a little commission in a small territory, we don’t have thousands of complaints a year.”

But the caseload is getting heavier, she said.

By its 20th anniversary in February, the human rights commission hopes to have its review in place, she said.