The new director for the Yukon Human Rights Commission describes human rights as “lived rights.”
“Unless citizens are working to maintain and build on those rights, they can slip away,” Jessica Thompson said yesterday, 72-hours after starting her new job.
Thompson takes over the role from Heather MacFadgen, who retired after about a decade working with the commission.
Thompson is originally from B.C. She’s spent the last seven years working as a prosecutor in Nunavut. For two years during that time, she also served on Nunavut’s Human Rights Tribunal as an adjudicator.
Unlike the Yukon, Nunavut does not have a human rights commission, only the tribunal that hears complaints.
“Commissions do a lot of fantastic but also unseen work, especially in public education and in investigating and resolving complaints before they get to the adjudication stage, tons of work on that level. The Yukon’s really lucky to have had a commission for so long,” she said.
Last year Thompson was an international elections observer for the Ukrainian presidential elections in May.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience to be in Ukraine for such historic elections and to just see the way that so many of the rights we take for granted are things that people still around the world are fighting for. Things like voting in fair and free elections.”
Closer to home, after working for so long in Nunavut, Thompson said she is particularly sensitive to the needs of isolated communities.
“I certainly have a strong sense of the importance of connecting with small communities. So that’s going to be, for me personally, a priority,” she said.
She said she’s not sure exactly what that is going to look like. The commission is just about to start working on a new five-year plan this February.
“There are ways that we can reach out and provide services to small communities remotely. But also I think we need to think creatively about how we make sure that the commission is the Yukon Human Rights Commission and reaches out to all Yukoners,” she said.
Also on the to-do list when it comes to the five-year plan is to do more research and education on pay equity in the Yukon, she said.
The Yukon Human Rights Act mandates that the commission “conduct education and research on the principle of equal pay for work of equal value in the private sector.” The public sector is covered under a different section of the act.
The Yukon laws have a broader definition of pay equity than most. It doesn’t just address a person’s sex – it also covers broader grounds like disability or aboriginal ancestry, Thompson said.
“That’s actually quite unique in Canada.”
A little bit of research on the topic has been started, but Thompson said it’s too early to talk about results.
“There are challenges for the Yukon Human Rights Commission to carry out that mandate because we really don’t have adequate funding,” she said.
“That’s really been the barrier, that we just don’t have adequate funding to really be able to deliver that aspect of our mandate.”
At this point, Thompson said she doesn’t know if that means asking the Yukon government for more money or coming up with creative solutions during the planning process.
The Yukon Human Rights Commission was in the news in 2014 after multiple inmates filed complaints against the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
So far three are making their way towards a hearing.
Thompson said she hasn’t been in the job long enough to comment on specific cases yet.
Anyone looking for more information on the Yukon Human Rights Commission can call the help line at 667-6226 or 1-800-661-0535 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Ashley Joannou at