Stereotype scandal rocks human rights board

An adjudicator with the Yukon Human Rights Board is accused by her colleagues of holding negative stereotypes towards natives. That's unacceptable, says Melissa Atkinson.

An adjudicator with the Yukon Human Rights Board is accused by her colleagues of holding negative stereotypes towards natives.

That’s unacceptable, says Melissa Atkinson. She chairs the Yukon Human Rights Commission, a body that vets complaints of discrimination before referring them to the board. She’s calling on Justice Minister Marian Horne to remedy the matter.

“It’s about protecting the integrity of the process,” she said. “It’s not anything personal … She was appointed when she actually had an active complaint.”

Michelle Vainio - best known for her recent term as Faro’s mayor - was appointed to the board more than two years ago, in November of 2008. At the time, a human rights complaint was underway that pitted her and several town councillors against Les Carpenter, who alleged they didn’t hire him as their senior administrative officer because of his First Nation ancestry.

The board found no evidence that discrimination occurred when it dismissed the case in January, but it did conclude that Vainio and other councillors “held some negative stereotypes about First Nation people or Indians.”

The stereotype in question seems to be the idea that First Nations have trouble showing up for work on time. Another councillor said, while working at Faro mine, he observed First Nations had a different “notion of time,” and didn’t believe it to be a slur.

Vainio agreed, saying during cross-examination that “she recognized cultural differences with First Nation peoples in their concepts of time.”

It’s important that all board members are “non-discriminatory,” and seen by the public to be such, said Atkinson. “My overall concern is to maintain public confidence in the process.”

Atkinson also worries Vainio, who didn’t respond to an interview request, has a dim view of the commission.

She noted that the lawyer representing Vainio and the Town of Faro slagged the commission, arguing that the case, which stretched over five and a half years, was “vexatious” in an effort to have the commission pay costs and damages to the town. He didn’t succeed.

Vainio hasn’t actually participated as an adjudicator since her appointment, said Barbara Evans, chair of the board. She wouldn’t comment on the particulars of the complaint against Vainio’s appointment, other than to say that the board screens its members for possible conflicts of interest before it assembles a panel of three to hear a complaint.

One big question that remains to be answered is just how someone with an active complaint was appointed to the board by Yukon’s legislature in the first place, in November of 2008.

Most board appointments are vetted by a standing committee, but the adjudication board is an exception, said the NDP’s Steve Cardiff.

Another loophole, in Atkinson’s mind, is that there are scant requirements for somebody to sit on the board and commission. She’d like to see “merit-based” requirements, such as a grasp of the workings of law, introduced.

Another clear screw-up is that the adjudication board has too many members.

The board is only supposed to have six, according to new rules passed in December. But it has eight.

The decision to appoint the two newest members was approved unanimously by the legislature, after the leaders of both opposition parties praised the work of Yukon’s human rights groups.

“To be honest with you, I really don’t know what happened there,” said Cardiff. “There must have been some confusion somewhere.”

The government now has a choice, he said. It can either change the law or remove two appointees.

It’s unclear, for now, how the territory plans to proceed. Horne didn’t respond to an interview request.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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