Kate Mechan, with Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, talks to a room full of people during a two-day human rights commission conference in Whitehorse on June 26. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Poverty, racism, disability issues top Yukon’s human rights concerns, conference hears

‘We need to be talking to people who have lived experience of poverty’

Disability-related complaints are the most common human rights complaints across Canada, and that includes the Yukon.

That’s what Jessica Lott Thompson, director of the Yukon Human Rights Commission, told a room full of people on day one of a two-day conference held at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre June 26 and 27.

The annual event, put on by the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies, is being held in Whitehorse this year, and brings together human rights workers from across the country.

Panel discussion and workshop topics include the role human rights commissions play in implementing the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, upholding the rights of service dog handlers, human rights in corrections, and gender identity and expression.

Monday night also included a 90-minute performance by Yukon author Ivan Coyote, who shared a number of published stories as well as one brand-new piece — a hilarious and heartbreaking story about their experience of using public washrooms as a transgender person.

Lott Thompson was speaking as part of a workshop on issues in the North.

The panel featured Bruce Warnsby, with the Yukon Human Rights Panel of Adjudicators, Kate Mechan, with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition (YAPC), and Aurora Hardy, with Youth for Lateral Kindness.

Mechan, who will soon be moving into a position with Safe-at-Home, a City of Whitehorse initiative aimed at ending and preventing homelessness, was the first to speak.

“From the Anti-Poverty Coalition’s perspective, by far the largest human rights issue facing Yukon would be discrimination based on source of income and then from there, the intersections of discrimination based on race and disability,” she said.

Income impacts a person’s ability to access food and housing, she said, which are “very real and very raw” and leave people vulnerable.

She said local leadership tends to imagine an adequate standard of living, while the YAPC believes people have the right to choose the food and housing they want.

This becomes a problem when policies and programs are created without the input of the people they affect.

“We need to be talking to people who have lived experience of poverty in general, but very specific issues (as well) to sort of then be able to come up with solutions that are going to work for people,” said Mechan.

Over the last two years, she said the YAPC has been trying to find solutions by doing just that.

Hardy opened her talk by asking the audience about their own experiences of lateral violence — displaced violence directed at peers.

She also explained Youth for Lateral Kindness, the organization she founded in 2016 with Teagyn Vallevand. The business offers workshops and blanket exercises as a way of teaching youth about First Nations history and the lasting effects of colonialism.

The organization started as a six-month project, she told listeners from across Canada, which facilitated 40 workshops with kids in various Yukon communities.

When project funding ran out, requests kept coming in, so she and Vallevand decided to continue the work as a business. Together, the two travel the territory offering workshops to youth.

Warnsby, a Whitehorse defence lawyer, spoke about the potential role of human rights commissions when it comes to self-governing First Nations communities. Absent specific legislation by a First Nation, how do you empower that First Nation to act? he asked.

Lott Thompson followed up by mentioning a project of the Indigenous Law Research Group at the University of Victoria, which aims to look at sources of human rights law within Indigenous law.

The group has approached the YHRC about partnering for a visit to Yukon communities.

“I personally think it’s a very exciting direction for us to take as human rights commissions in terms of supporting, potentially,” she said.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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