Our not so public federal building

For the last four years, Blood Ties Four Directions has hosted its annual AIDS walk at the Elijah Smith Building in downtown Whitehorse. But this year, the local nonprofit can't afford it.

For the last four years, Blood Ties Four Directions has hosted its annual AIDS walk at the Elijah Smith Building in downtown Whitehorse.

But this year, the local nonprofit can’t afford it.

“The cost of insurance is way out of our league,” said acting executive director Lauren Passmore on Tuesday.

The problems began when SNC-Lavalin – a Montreal-based engineering and construction giant that manages more than 300 federal buildings across the country – assumed management of the Yukon’s federal building last August.

Instantly, things changed.

The public phone and bathrooms were the first to go. But subtler, more serious changes also took place.

Nonprofit groups and members of the Yukon public could no longer hand out flyers, host rallies or even gather at the federal building without safety deposits, $2-million liability insurance and licence agreements.

In May, Blood Ties Four Directions put up posters at the Elijah Smith Building to raise awareness for World Hepatitis Day –

one was a black-and-white photo of federal MP Larry Bagnell holding a sign that reads ‘Knowing the Yukon is knowing Hep C.’

The building’s commissionaires tore them down within two hours.

A few days later, Blood Ties tried again, this time setting up a display outside the building.

Less than two minutes after the Blood Ties employees set up, the commissionaires tore down their signs.

“They were just slamming them on the ground and didn’t ask whether they could assist us,” said Blood Ties executive director Patricia Bacon in a previous News interview.

After the posters were taken down, Bacon decided to hand out hepatitis C pamphlets, bracelets and pens to people walking past.

That’s when the commissionaire told her they were calling the RCMP.

Bacon left.

The incident echoes a 1991 Supreme Court case that arose after the manager of Crown-owned Dorval Airport in Montreal tried to prohibit the distribution of political leaflets in the building.

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided the prohibition was unconstitutional.

In another case, two years later, the Supreme Court struck down a municipal bylaw that prohibited postering “on any public property,” again, because it was “unconstitutional.”

The Elijah Smith Building is “public space,” said Public Works acting regional director Ryan Beattie from Vancouver this week.

“The new terms and conditions for the use of the space by third parties were put into place when SNC-Lavalin took over the management of the building,” he said.

“And over last year, a number of groups and nonprofit organizations continued to use the space and met all the terms and conditions. And we’re hopeful that as long as they work with the SNC-Lavalin people there, they can work through these sorts of issues in advance.”

But “the SNC-Lavalin people” aren’t based in Whitehorse.

It’s a long-distance call to BC just to leave a message on the SNC-Lavalin facility manager’s voicemail.

Two hours after the News left a message, Shelly called back.

She refused to give her last name.

“I don’t think you need that,” said SNC-Lavalin’s facility manager. “You’ve got my phone number, I don’t think you need my last name.”

Shelly also refused to answer questions about the new rules for using Elijah Smith.

“All the information is in a handout that’s posted throughout the building,” she said.

And she wouldn’t answer more detailed questions about the necessary insurance, security deposits and paperwork.

“It’s right in that publication, all the information that is required and how they manage it,” she said.

The publication is a single typewritten sheet of paper that says: “To protect the Crown and users, we are asking for community groups to sign a licence agreement, show proof of liability insurance, and post a $50 refundable cleaning deposit.”

It doesn’t go into further detail.

“It’s very clear,” said Shelly. “In the publication it says clearly what is required.”

SNC-Lavalin manages almost all of Public Works’ buildings across the country, said Beattie.

Most recently, the multinational mega-corporation was awarded a $150-million joint venture with Saudi Tabreed for two cooling plants in Saudi Arabia.

Whitehorse was off the radar, in terms of public security at its federal building, said Beattie.

But after 9/11, Public Works began to do threat/risk assessments on all its buildings.

It took time, he said.

“And with the Elijah Smith Building being in a more remote location, it was probably considered at a lower risk in the whole scheme of things.

“That’s one of the reasons why we wouldn’t have put those terms and conditions in place as soon as we would have in some of our buildings in the national capital area.”

Now, all public government buildings have the same terms and conditions, he said.

“It’s not specific to Yukon. In our large cities, our small towns, and in small communities across the country, third-party users are asked to conform to these terms and conditions while using our public space and Crown-owned buildings.”

When Public Works did a threat/risk assessment for Elijah Smith, it identified a number of risks, including vehicle vandalism in the parkade, arson in the loading area and assaults in the public washroom, said Beattie.

“That probably precipitated some of the changes, like changing the payphone, or securing the washrooms.”

But “We still welcome the public to use the space,” he added.

“It’s not our intent to shut down the plaza for these sorts of events whatsoever, but at the same time we have to ensure that the general public, federal employees, and the Crown is properly protected so that occupants and visitors can continue to conduct their business in the space.”

Blood Ties is going to host this year’s AIDS walk from LePage Park.

The nonprofit doesn’t need safety deposits, liability insurance and licensing agreements to use the park.

It will host its preregistration events there too.

“We used to hold our preregistration barbecue at Elijah Smith as well,” said Passmore.

“But this year it’s a no-go.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at