Law needs fixing, but process is broken

The 21-year-old Yukon Human Rights Act refers to people as “retards.” It hasn’t been amended since it was first passed in 1987.

The 21-year-old Yukon Human Rights Act refers to people as “retards.”

It hasn’t been amended since it was first passed in 1987.

A select committee, comprised of Justice Minister Marian Horne, Liberal MLA Don Inverarity and NDP MLA Steve Cardiff, is attempting to improve the act, and the group has been travelling to Yukon communities to host public consultations.

But the committee didn’t consult with the people that know the act best — the Yukon Human Rights Commission itself.

“We’ve come to the public consultation and tried to make some comments,” said human rights director Heather MacFadgen, after the public meeting in Whitehorse on Wednesday night.

“We’ve tried to be proactive.”

But it’s been frustrating.

“Some of the provisions (in the act) are incredibly outdated and not in line with the rest of Canada,” said human rights chair Melissa Atkinson, who also attended the public hearing to voice her concerns.

Having the word “retardation,” in the act, when talking about people with disabilities is “degrading and completely outdated,” she said.

The act doesn’t recognize people under 16 who face discrimination due to sexual orientation, and this needs to change, said Atkinson.

And aboriginal identity also needs to be added to the act, she said.

“We would like to be part of the (amendment) process,” said Atkinson.

The committee was struck by the legislative assembly to “hold hearings to receive the views and opinions of the Yukon Human Rights Commission,” according to motion No. 374.

But this hasn’t happened, said MacFadgen.

The committee was given the power to “invite the members of the Yukon Human Rights Commission to appear as witnesses,” during its review of public opinion.

But this hasn’t happened either, she said.

The committee can’t agree on whether all the hearings should be public, despite the fact it’s mandated to hold meetings with the human rights commission, said Inverarity.

And it takes a unanimous vote before the committee could hold such a meeting, he added.

While Inverarity was in favour of holding a hearing with the commission, at least one of his colleagues was not.

Cardiff supports the commission’s participation in the process.

“We’ve met with them and value the work they’ve done,” said Cardiff.

The commission also wanted to attend the public hearings in every community, said Inverarity.

But it couldn’t afford it.

“There is a budget for us, but it didn’t include the commission,” he said.

The human rights commission was told to apply to Justice for funding. It did, and was told the request would be considered at the next sitting — too late.

“So they were hamstrung from attending our meetings,” said Inverarity.

MacFadgen did come to the Dawson, Watson Lake, Carcross and Marsh Lake meetings.

“She paid her own way and stayed with a friend in Dawson,” said Inverarity.

It’s been suggested the human rights commission is “a child of the act and, therefore, should not be involved in its amendment,” he added.

“But the government went and gave the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board money to rewrite its own act — it doesn’t make sense.”

The committee has also been criticized for failing to educate the public prior to the consultations.

“I am disappointed in the select committee process,” said Laura MacFeeters, who was the executive assistant to the minister of Justice when the act was first introduced in 1987.

 “I would have expected a process designed to solicit the views of Yukoners about how our human rights act might be changed to include substantive information and educational material about what our law says now, what issues those working with it have identified and how it compares with the protections elsewhere in Canada.

“It is too bad you did not choose to make a more organized effort to promote informed discussion ‘regarding public opinion on legislative options for amending the human rights act’ as is your mandate.”

Unlike the public consultations on the smoking legislation, where the proposed changes were outlined, the human rights review expects the public to be somewhat familiar with the act.

“It would have been better if we had a working document, or discussion points,” said Inverarity.

“But again, everything had to be decided unanimously ….”

Some of the public, speaking on Wednesday evening, were confused about what was and wasn’t in the act.

“I didn’t realize my point was already in there,” said one fellow, who was embarrassed to give his name, and was worried about audible minorities.

“I wish I’d known about this earlier than an hour ago,” said Krystal Loverin, who identified herself with “as many labels as possible — a bisexual, aboriginal, female youth.”

Loverin wanted to see the age requirement taken off the sexual orientation clause.

The lack of support for women facing violence and homelessness in the act was what worried Yukon Status of Women co-ordinator Charolette Hrenchuk.

But human resources consultant John Pereira had very different concerns.

The act caters to the claimant and shuts out business owners, he said.

“It is currently unfair to employers and respondents and needs to be rebalanced to take into account their interests,” said Pereira.

Takhini Transport’s Pat Jamieson corroborated her concern.

“I was the boogeyman,” she said.

“You’re automatically tagged the bad guy, you’re automatically assumed guilty — and I was found not guilty in every one of the cases.”

It’s true there needs to be a rebalancing of the system, said MacFadgen.

“We have the lowest threshold in Canada for getting into our system.”

There are times it’s obvious the employer is not acting out of malice, but “we still have to go by the letter of the law,” added human rights commissioner Rick Goodfellow.

“We once upon a time wanted justice, so we created laws, and now we value laws more than justice,” he said.

“I hope the amended act is cutting edge, so we show the rest of Canada we’re willing to push the envelope,” said Atkinson.

“It’s not just up to government to fix the law, it’s up to each and every one of you as community members,” she added.

The select committee will be accepting written submissions suggesting changes to the act until October 17th.

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