Reflections: A Summer Spent at the Yukon Human Rights Commission

By Rachelle Rose

I have now returned to Montreal, my hometown, after being a summer student with the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC) for three months. As I sit on the floor of my home, I am reflecting on the astonishing and life-shaping experiences that I’ve had this summer. But mostly, I am thinking about what a privilege it was for so many people to trust me and openly speak to me about the human rights violations they experienced.

I recall my first days at the YHRC, I shadowed a few of my colleagues, who all made the complaint process appear so easy.

The process usually began with an individual calling or walking into the YHRC. The YHRC identifies this initial meeting as an inquiry, during which the individual describes the incident in which they felt maltreated. Some inquiries were more straightforward than others, still, the Director and Legal Counsel would review each inquiry, informing the Human Rights Officers (HRO) and interns as to whether the inquiry fell within the authority and jurisdiction of the Yukon Human Rights Act (Act), which the YHRC enforces.

Specific instances of harassment and discrimination are identified in the Act and if an inquiry fit the criteria for discrimination or harassment as per the Act, the inquirer was invited to submit a formal complaint. There were times when inquirers, although informed that their inquiry did not constitute discrimination or harassment under the Act, still decided to file a complaint. Legal Counsel would always remind us that anyone could file a complaint whether meritorious or not.

After a review of the complaint by the Director to decide whether the YHRC would proceed with investigating the complaint, a settlement between the Complainant (the person who filed a complaint of discrimination or harassment) and the Respondent (the person who was accused of the incident of discrimination or harassment), would be a possibility. If the complaint could not be settled, it would most often advance to the investigation stage, where an HRO would gather further information from both the Complainant and the Respondent. During the entire process, the YHRC acts as a neutral party. Given the information collected by the HRO, the file could be passed on to a Board of Adjudication (BOA) hearing (a public hearing). The BOA is independent of the YHRC. A decision is often made at this stage about whether there is enough evidence to make a finding of harassment or discrimination. If so, the BOA can order the Respondent to provide specific remedies.

About two weeks into my internship, I began interviewing inquirers. Many shared narratives that included instances of discrimination and harassment. These moments were filled with sadness, as the treatment was usually very harmful, but also satisfaction. It felt as though the individual would soon be receiving some kind of vindication.

Conversely, people would often visit the YHRC with a misconception of the mandate. On the website, it is stated that “The Yukon Human Rights Commission promotes equality and diversity through research, education, and enforcement of the Yukon Human Rights Act.”

I would often refer inquirers to the Act, informing them that the YHRC cannot act on matters beyond what is stated in the Act. I would explain that the Act largely addresses instances of discrimination and harassment. I could often feel people’s despair and/or anger, whether they were seated in front of me or on the other side of the phone when they realized that the event they experienced did not fall within the Act and thus we would likely not be able to help them. While some were happy with the referrals we made to other organizations and/or resources, others stated that they felt shuffled around and that the YHRC should have the authority to enforce their human rights.

I heard many stories over the summer, some were extremely tragic. In result, I often left inquiry meetings with a heavy heart. So many times, I felt helpless, knowing that I couldn’t help the individual sitting in front of me or speaking to me from the other end of the line in the manner that they needed.

A fraction of the calls that we received was from inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC). It was difficult to hear these stories while being constrained by the powers of the Act. In most of the cases, there was little that we could do for these individuals. Many inquired about their rights. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality reasons, I cannot disclose the subject matter of most inquiries. However, the overuse of solitary confinement recently became public news. At the YHRC, we received multiple calls from inmates describing instances of being held in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.

Fortunately, before leaving my internship with the YHRC, I was informed that due to four inmates filing complaints in 2014 regarding the lack of mental health services and programming as well as the overuse of solitary confinement among those with mental health challenges, the YHRC was able to consolidate them to then put forward a group complaint in 2017.

Consequently, the Yukon Government, the YHRC and the complainants signed an agreement this year in which the Yukon Government agreed to improve jail conditions for inmates struggling with mental health, through the creation of a forensic mental health unit under the care of a Ph.D. clinical psychologist and an increase in reporting and record keeping regarding the use of solitary confinement.

It was an encouraging end to my summer. I witnessed the YHRC use its authority, still within the Act, to make changes on a structural level rather than at the individual level, which I grew accustomed to seeing. However, this agreement would only address WCC’s lack of mental health services and programming as well as the overuse of solitary confinement among those with mental health challenges.

In a conversation with one of my colleagues, I asked her about what could be done for these inmates, she informed me about the John Howard Society, which advocates for changes in the criminal justice process, but as for the YHRC, we would not be able to address every issue raised by the aforementioned inquirers.

A few times during the summer I wondered, what if we went outside of the mandate to help these inquirers, what would the consequences be? What implications would arise from partnering with such an organization, seeing as the YHRC is a neutral party and should be seen as such? With my limited knowledge and few answers, I questioned how helpful I could be.

Rest assured, I haven’t acted outside of the mandate, but my experiences have led me to think more deeply about the human rights work that I aspire to do in the future as well as the possible limitations that may be placed on me and/or the organization I work for, given the type of work, clientele, funding and all other factors.

Leave a Reply

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.