Yukon Human Rights Commission wants financial independence

The Yukon Human Rights Commission hopes the new Liberal government will agree to one of its longstanding requests: financial independence from the Yukon government.

The Yukon Human Rights Commission hopes the new Liberal government will agree to one of its longstanding requests: financial independence from the Yukon government.

While the commission reports to the Yukon Legislative Assembly, its funding comes from the Department of Justice.

That’s a problem, said the commission’s chair, as the commission sometimes investigates complaints directed at the justice department. One example, said chair Russell Knutson, is the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

“We have to be and appear to be an independent body,” he said.

The justice department also provides legal support to other Yukon government departments the commission might be investigating.

“It’s a really uncomfortable situation,” he said.

While Knutson said the government hasn’t threatened to cut funding because of human rights investigations, “the potential is there.”

Calls for the commission to be truly arm’s length date back to 2008 when a select committee on human rights recommended the legislative assembly address the funding conflict.

In 2010, Melissa Atkinson, the commission’s chair at the time, wrote a lengthy submission to the justice department, outlining similar concerns.

“In the commission’s view the current arrangements for funding the commission do not strike an appropriate balance between accountability and independence,” she wrote.

What the commission wants is to have the legislative assembly decide on its funding. That’s similar to the way the Yukon ombudsman’s office operates.

The commission already reports to the legislative assembly, not the government, and tables annual reports.

It could also use more staff, Knutson said.

As it stands, the commission has five employees, mostly working on dealing with complaints and enforcing the Yukon Human Rights Act.

But Knutson would like to see an emphasis on education before enforcement.

“Education and research should be done first and we haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “That kind of research is really important to keep a finger on the pulse of the community.”

It also allows staff to learn about emerging human rights themes, such as gender identity.

Similar human rights issues arise throughout the country, Knutson said, but each jurisdiction has different legislation requiring different amendments.

The commission has benefited from Pro Bono Student Canada, a program sending law students to help various organizations do research, free of charge.

Jessica Lott Thompson, the commission’s director of human rights, told the News the commission relies on three other partnerships to have additional staff for research.

That’s because staff are busy with investigations. And last year, the justice department denied extra funding to do research into pay equity.

Lott Thompson wouldn’t say how many more staff the commission needs. Rather, she said, the commission needs to have a relationship with its funding body so that if the number of complaints goes up, it can have more resources.

“We do not participate in the justice (department) funding decisions,” she said. “They don’t see the materials we draft about why we need funding.”

The commission operates on a $600,000 budget, three quarters of which go to staff salaries.

Last year, public education expenses accounted for less than one per cent of the total budget.

The commission’s 2015-2016 annual report notes a record number of inquiries at 323, up from 256 the year before, and 44 formal complaints, twice as many as usual.

It takes between two and six months to investigate a human rights complaint, Lott Thompson said, and there’s a waiting list of well over a year.

The relationship between the Yukon government and the commission hasn’t always been a smooth one.

In 2014, Yukon government lawyers argued the commission had no authority to investigate the correctional centre.

Over the years, multiple complaints have been filed against the jail. In 2014, inmate Michael Nehass filed a complaint over a naked video court appearance and the prolonged use of solitary confinement. Last fall, a Jewish inmate filed a complaint alleging he wasn’t allowed to have kosher food for five months.

In 2015, the commission had to threaten to seek a court order to force the WCC to provide methadone to an inmate suffering from opioid addiction.

It’s not clear why previous Yukon governments didn’t make the legislative changes to entrench the commission’s independence.

The Opposition Yukon Party declined to comment about decisions made while it was in power back in 2008 and 2010.

A spokesperson told the News that none of the current sitting Yukon Party MLAs were involved on this file at the time.

A cabinet spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com