The hearing into the legality of the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) Act is scheduled to wrap up on Nov. 10 after three days of intense and, at times, conflicting testimony.
The SCAN Act empowers the Yukon government to resolve complaints of alleged illicit activity at a property by serving an eviction notice with as little as five days warning, regardless of any existing tenancy agreements.
The legal challenge is centred on the idea that the SCAN Act violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of liberty and security. According to the lawyer bringing the challenge forward, Vincent Larochelle, the aim is to strike down the section of the act that allows landlords to terminate tenancy agreements by giving five days’ notice.
Larochelle is representing petitioner Celia Wright, whose family was notified to evict from their rented home near the Carcross Cutoff in December 2020. The renters received five days’ notice to vacate the property.
When the eviction notice was served, Wright lived in the home with her eight children, her partner and her partner’s mother.
The month before receiving her eviction notice from SCAN unit officers, Wright’s residence was raided by RCMP officers who discovered “an amount of suspected cocaine,” more than $13,000 in cash, a loaded handgun and stolen property.
Both Wright and her partner, Levy Blanchard, were hit with numerous criminal charges following the raid. The charges against them have not been proven in court.
The eviction of Wright’s family under the SCAN Act was revoked in January of the following year after their landlord instead served them his own eviction notice. Despite the SCAN unit’s eviction order being rescinded, Wright still decided to proceed with a legal challenge of the act.
During the hearing, the court heard from numerous individuals, namely experts on homelessness and racism, Wright herself and the now-former SCAN officer who served the family’s eviction notice.
Much of the expert testimony on Nov. 7 touched on the impacts of homelessness and systematic racism on Indigenous and racialized people in Canada, with a particular focus on northern Canada and the Yukon. Wright is a Yukon First Nations woman.
Stephen Gaetz, a York University professor and president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness who was called as an expert witness, outlined the circumstances that can cause someone to become unhoused, including evictions.
Gaetz noted that the further west and north you go in Canada, the higher the prevalence of unhoused Indigenous people. He also said that a point-in-time count in Whitehorse in 2018 showed 82 per cent of unhoused people in the city were Indigenous, with 73 per cent of these people identifying as First Nations.
York Research Chair in Reparative and Racial Justice Carmela Murdocca told the court that complaints-based property ordinances such as the SCAN Act operate on the fringes of the criminal justice system and disproportionately affect “racialized, economically marginalized and Indigenous people.”
“Complaints-based nuisance property ordinances tend not to impact wealthy areas, […] they tend to make vulnerable people more vulnerable,” Murdocca said, adding that such legislation often has the opposite of its intended effect, making communities less safe.
During cross-examination, Crown attorney Amy Porteous honed in on elements of Murdocca’s research and pointed out that many of her assertions about complaints-based property ordinances in other jurisdictions — such as illegal gambling — do not apply to the Yukon.
Wright’s testimony informed the court about her experience being served and eviction notice under the SCAN Act. She said Blanchard and herself paid rent regularly, and they were hoping to buy the property they were living on from their landlord.
Wright said that, after the government eviction notice was delivered, their landlord told Blanchard that he was in contact with — and “being pressured by” — the SCAN unit.
Their landlord ultimately issued his own eviction order that gave them two months’ notice to vacate the property. The property was later sold, and Wright and Blanchard were not the buyers.
In court, Wright outlined how the eviction impacted her and her family’s lives. She noted that it was difficult for their large family to find suitable housing and that they bounced around between properties. For a while, she was living in a trailer in someone’s yard, and Blanchard’s mother spent time living in a tent in Robert Service Campground.
“I’m Indigenous to this land, and I was homeless. I didn’t even have a parcel of land to pitch a tent on,” Wright said.
The former SCAN officer responsible for serving Wright’s family the eviction notice testified on Nov. 7. He is no longer employed by the SCAN unit.
He told the court that the SCAN unit and RCMP sometimes share information “when appropriate” but that his team did not share information on Wright’s family’s residence with the police. He also said that the SCAN unit had deemed the property a public safety issue four years before the family was evicted.
He said the SCAN unit learned of the police raid on Wright’s home through the media, and they became aware that a “significant amount of drugs” were seized from the property.
Speaking about the unit’s investigation and eviction process, the former officer said that they provide details of their investigations to landlords, who can decide to expel tenants. He stated that the SCAN unit never makes a landlord evict a tenant and that the decision to evict is up to the property owner.
Regarding the eviction notice served to Wright and her family, the former SCAN officer said he was in contact with their landlord, who was informed that a public safety order to force their eviction from the property was likely to be filed. He said the landlord was keen to see them leave his property but was scared to evict them himself, given the crimes that Wright and Blanchard had been charged with.
When asked by Larochelle what impact Wright’s residence was having on the community, the former officer said, “Drug trafficking, by its very nature, has an impact on the community.” He listed the coming and going of vehicles during day and night as an example.
He also stated that the SCAN unit was confident evicting Wright’s family would disrupt drug trafficking activities at the residence.
During cross-examination, Larochelle pointed out discrepancies between the former SCAN officer’s testimony and the email correspondence between the former officer and the landlord. One such email discussed in court apparently stated that the SCAN unit was behind the eviction, as opposed to the landlord, as the former SCAN officer asserted.
The courtroom also heard that, while five days’ notice was the standard, extensions were regularly granted to evictees upon written request. The former SCAN officer added that 14 days’ notice is now the unit’s standard for eviction orders, although other time frames can be considered.
Closing arguments are scheduled to be delivered on Nov. 10 in Whitehorse.
Contact Matthew Bossons at firstname.lastname@example.org