Human rights commission to investigate jail complaints

The Yukon Human Rights Commission says it's prepared to move forward with human rights complaints at the jail - with or without the Department of Justice's co-operation.

The Yukon Human Rights Commission says it’s prepared to move forward with human rights complaints at the jail – with or without the Department of Justice’s co-operation.

In a lengthy letter obtained by the News from an anonymous source, the commission’s lawyer accuses the government of taking a stance that “turns Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence with respect to the interpretation of human rights law on its head.”

Multiple human rights complaints have been filed by inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

Very few details of the specific complaints have been made public, but government lawyers have insisted the human rights commission doesn’t have the authority to investigate them.

They say that since the jail has its own investigative body – the Investigations and Standards office, or ISO – Yukon human rights law prevents the commission from investigating.

If an inmate has a problem with an ISO decision, they can go to court, they say.

The government has provided very little to support its stance, said commission lawyer Colleen Harrington in the letter.

“You say that YG’s position is based upon a “plain reading” of the Human Rights Act and you provide no case law to support this view that human rights law in Yukon should be so drastically diminished as compared to everywhere else in Canada,” she writes.

Meanwhile, the Yukon Department of Justice has gone silent.

When the News first broke the story last month, the department provided a written statement. Since then Justice Minister Mike Nixon has commented twice to the paper.

Now, spokesperson Caitlin Kerwin says “it is the longstanding practice of the Department of Justice not to comment publicly on discussions between the department and the Yukon Human Rights Commission concerning human rights complaints.”

Changes in 2009 to the Yukon Human Rights Act say the commission shall investigate complaints unless “the complainant has not exhausted grievance or review procedures which are otherwise reasonably available” or “the substance of the complaint has already been dealt with in another proceeding.”

Harrington argues it’s up to the commission to make the decision whether to investigate, not the government.

She relies on pages of case law, including federal cases, that deal with situations in other jurisdictions.

Though other laws are worded slightly differently, that doesn’t change things, Harrington said.

The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly rejected narrow interpretations of human rights law, she said.

In a 1987 case, the court noted that while the words of human rights legislation should be given their plain meaning, “We should not search for ways and means to minimize those rights and to enfeeble their proper impact.”

Arguing “that the mere existence of the ISO, the ombudsman, and the courts, even if they have not been accessed by inmates, ousts the jurisdiction of the commission, would have the absurd result of leaving inmates without a forum in which to air their allegations of discrimination, contrary to the intention of the legislature that all persons be able to access human rights legislation,” Harrington writes.

The idea that an inmate could go to the courts with a complaint “demonstrates an alarming lack of understanding of the financial situation of most inmates at WCC, as well as the services offered by Legal Aid, which do not include prison law,” she said.

She questions whether the ISO is qualified to answer legal questions or adjudicate disputes.

“The commission has seen letters written by the ISO to inmates in response to their complaints that demonstrate an alarming lack of understanding of basic legal principles,” she writes.

It would appear from Harrington’s letter that the government’s position on this issue is a recent change.

She claims to have a letter from 2011 in which a senior ISO investigator tells an inmate who raised human rights concerns that ISO “is not a court of competent jurisdiction to review either Charter challenges or claimed violations of the Human Rights Act.”

Meanwhile, the commission says it has a duty to act. So the cases move forward.

According to the letter, investigators will be taking the information they’ve gathered to a panel of commission members near the end of October.

Those members – who have all been appointed by the government – will decide whether there is enough information to send the cases to a human rights board of adjudication.

If the government has a problem with that, they are welcome to go to court, Harrington writes.

It’s the board of adjudication that would hear the evidence and decide whether or not the government has broken the law.

There is no way to force the government to defend itself. Board hearings have been held in the past without a defendant present.

But the board is able to compel people to testify and to order documents be presented.

Any orders that the board might make, whether that’s financial compensation or changes to the system, are enforceable even if the government chooses not to show up.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

In a Feb. 17 statement, the City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology used for emergency response. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Three words could make all the difference in an emergency

City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology

Jesse Whelen, Blood Ties Four Directions harm reduction councillor, demonstrates how the organization tests for fentanyl in drugs in Whitehorse on May 12, 2020. The Yukon Coroner’s Service has confirmed three drug overdose deaths and one probable overdose death since mid-January. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three overdose deaths caused by “varying levels of cocaine and fentanyl,” coroner says

Heather Jones says overdoses continue to take lives at an “alarming rate”

Wyatt's World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Approximately 30 Yukoners protest for justice outside the Whitehorse courthouse on Feb. 22, while a preliminary assault hearing takes place inside. The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, based in Watson Lake, put out a call to action over the weekend. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Courthouse rally denounces violence against Indigenous women

The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society put out a call to action

Then Old Crow MLA Darius Elias speak’s in the community centre in Old Crow in 2016. Elias died in Whitehorse on Feb. 17. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News file)
Condolences shared for former Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Darius Elias

Elias is remembered as a proud parent, hockey fan and politican

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

The Yukon government and the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce have signed a letter of understanding under the territory’s new procurement policy. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
First Nation business registry planned under new procurement system

Letter of understanding signals plans to develop registry, boost procurement opportunities

US Consul General Brent Hardt during a wreath-laying ceremony at Peace Arch State Park in September 2020. Hardt said the two federal governments have been working closely on the issue of appropriate border measures during the pandemic. (John Kageorge photo)
New U.S. consul general says countries working closely on COVID-19 border

“I mean, the goal, obviously, is for both countries to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Start of spring sitting announced

The Yukon legislature is set to resume for the spring sitting on… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

History Hunter: Kwanlin Dün — a book of history, hardship and hope

Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words is published by… Continue reading

(File photo)
RCMP arrest Saskatchewan murder suspect

Yukon RCMP have arrested a man suspected of attempted murder from outside… Continue reading

Most Read