Editorial: How do we force people to take environmental fines seriously?

The laws need to have teeth or we are missing the point

There are people breaking Yukon’s environmental laws who don’t give a moose’s turd about the consequences and there doesn’t seem to be much Environment Yukon can do about it.

As was reported in these pages last week, the Turn in Poachers and Polluters fund (TIPP) is owed about $200,000 in fines from people and companies that have refused to pay even after being ordered by a judge.

The lawbreakers appear to have realized that the government won’t take them back to court — this time as a civil matter — in order to recover the relatively small individual fines that make up that total sum.

At first blush, that makes sense. Conservation officers have better things to do with their time and the department has better things to do with taxpayers’ money than pay for lawyers to chase down a $500 fine.

Environment officials could take away your hunting licence if you owe them money, but that’s hardly a scary threat for people convicted of charges that prove they are already comfortable with thumbing their nose at the rules.

What the territory is left with is an act with teeth duller than those of the animals it’s supposed to protect.

So new consequences are being proposed.

Unpaid fines? No driver’s licence for you.

There are some obvious potential problems with the proposal the government is considering as part of a revamp of the Motor Vehicles Act. Firstly, the new law would only apply to Yukon driver’s licences meaning those who come from Outside would not be at the same risk.

The change would also not impact businesses with unpaid fines.

There are other options that should also be considered.

If you don’t pay your taxes, the City of Whitehorse is required to put your name on a list that is published in the local newspaper.

This form of public shaming might be useful when it comes to environmental rule-breakers. Yukoners should know who among them is shirking their consequences. Some form of public attention might also encourage businesses to pay their fines sooner as opposed to the current situation where at least a few appear to have now gone bankrupt while still owing money.

At a minimum, this list would allow Yukoners to make informed decisions when it comes to where they choose to spend their money.

Speaking of the public’s right to know, it’s worth pointing out that the documents listing the unpaid fines — which were released through an access to information request — do not include most of the names of the people and businesses that still owe money.

The majority of the names have been redacted under sections of the act claiming it would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy and that the names are part of an investigation.

The thing is, whoever was in charge of the redaction didn’t blackout the case file numbers that go with the mystery names. An interested member of the public, or intrepid journalist, could take all those file numbers, walk into the court registry, and find the names.

It shouldn’t come down to that though. Courts are open, public and transparent. Short of a publication ban, those names should be available to the public. It’s not an invasion of privacy when your name is on a public court file. If there’s been a conviction, it’s hard to argue there is still an investigation. The names should never should have been redacted in the first place.

If those in charge think that the territorial access legislation is really strong enough to overrule a fundamental tenant of democracy, like an open and transparent court system, they need to have their ego deflated.

By the way, the decision to redact the names of those who still owe fines is currently being appealed.

In the grand scheme of the Yukon’s ballooning territorial budget, being short $200,000 is a blip.

Allowing those who break the law to believe their actions don’t have consequences is a much bigger deal.

Fines are meant to deter people from committing crimes. They also demonstrate what we as a community believe is important.

If our environmental laws are not doing both of those things, then they need to be changed. Not because we need the money, but because we need enforceable legislation that truly has bite.

(AJ)

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