The head of a national prisoner support group says she’s never heard of a jurisdiction trying to keep the human rights commission out of a jail, as is happening in the Yukon.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, has her own suspicions for why the Yukon Department of Justice has refused to allow the territory’s human rights commission to investigate complaints from within the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
“My suspicion would be, the reason the Department of Justice doesn’t want the human rights commission to look at what’s happening, is that they likely would find breeches of human rights within the territorial jail,” she said.
Justice officials assert that the Yukon Human Rights Commission doesn’t have the authority to investigate complaints at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre because the jail has its own internal complaint process.
Yet Pate notes that similar investigations have been allowed at the federal level.
In January 2004, the Canadian Human Rights Commission released a special report, Protecting Their Rights: A Systemic Review of Human Rights in Correctional Services for Federally Sentenced Women. The report came three years after womens’ organizations approached the national commission with concerns.
It found that while some progress has been made, “systemic problems continue to affect the correctional system and the treatment of federally sentenced women.”
If there was any concern about a human rights commission investigating inside a correctional centre, Pate suggests it would have been brought up then, and it wasn’t.
Federal prisons are generally better run than provincial and territorial jails, said Pate. Given that, “it would be indisputable that the conditions in provincial and territorial jails would be found to be breeching human rights,” she said.
The government justifies its blocking of the commission by relying on a section of the Yukon Human Rights Act that was amended in 2009.
It says there are exceptions to when the commission can investigate. That includes if “the complainant has not exhausted grievance or review procedures which are otherwise reasonably available or procedures provided for under another act,” or if “the substance of the complaint has already been dealt with in another proceeding.”
Lois Moorcroft was on the Yukon Human Rights Commission when these changes were being made. Now an MLA and the NDP’s Justice critic, Moorcroft says this interpretation of the law has never been brought up in the past and is not what the changes were intended to do.
“It was not the intent of those 2009 amendments to make human rights unavailable to a whole category of people. It was intended to manage resources more efficiently and to provide for greater efficiency in the system.”
Legislative debates over the changes make no mention of limiting the commission’s authority.
“I’m appalled with the very idea that human rights stop at the front door of the correctional centre,” said Moorcroft.
“I think it shows this minister’s failure to understand the basic principles of human dignity. Human rights and access to justice should be available for everyone including people who are charged with a criminal offence.”
Justice Minister Mike Nixon refused an interview request for this story.
The Yukon Human Rights Commission has said it disagrees with the Department of Justice but won’t say whether it will go to court to fight for its right to investigate.
Moorcroft said she thinks some sort of court intervention might be helpful to resolve the matter.
“It is wrong to preclude an entire category of people from having their human rights respected because they’re being held at a corrections centre, and it was never the intent of the Human Rights Act,” she said.
Officials have confirmed that multiple human rights complaints have been filed against the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. No one is providing any specific details.
The only complaint that has been made public so far is on behalf of an inmate who was brought naked to a video court appearance, shackled and pinned to the floor by jail guards.
It claims he was kept in solitary confinement for 28 months.
The Department of Justice denies that claim.
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