According to the most recent annual report of the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission, disability continues to be at the heart of most human rights complaints in the Northwest Territories.
Court officials briefed the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Government Operations on their 2020-2021 report on April 26.
From April 2020 to March 2021, the Office of the Chief Executive of the Commission received 30 new complaints; Of these, 18 – or 60% – were related to disabilities. The other most common grounds for complaint were gender, with nine, and race, age and ethnicity, with five each.
One of the biggest barriers to accessibility is the territory’s building code, said commission chair Charles Dent. The current National Standard of Canada for Accessible Building Design includes protocols for making facilities accessible to people with physical and other disabilities. Dent said the National Building Code standards, which the Northwest Territories uses, are not as stringent.
“If you just use the building code, you’re going to end up with a situation where the day you open your building — we can’t say it’s going to happen for sure, but it’s possible — someone might face a situation where they might feel unable to get into that toilet and use it properly,” Dent said.
Despite these challenges, Dent was optimistic: “I believe we have already become one of the fairest and most accessible systems in Canada,” he said. “When we have finished implementing the changes, we will set an enviable example for other jurisdictions.”
“A major problem” that reservations are not within the competence of the Commission
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos pointed out that the territory’s two reservations, including Salt River, fall outside the jurisdiction of the territory’s human rights commission. “As a former chief of Salt River, this is a major issue,” she said. “People doing arbitration from another jurisdiction, whether it’s Ottawa or whatever, don’t know the circumstances of the reservation or don’t know the people, and that could be a big hurdle.
the Tribunal will always work with on-reserve complainants who come to it, even if only to help them file a complaint in Federal Court. “If they come to us, we’re happy to work with them,” he said.
Martselos said complaints should always be adjudicated at the territorial level; She said she was aware of some cases where plaintiffs were fired from the territorial commission and asked to take their complaints to the federal level.
Dent agreed that local, territorial and federal governments would all have to agree to the territorial commission taking up a complaint outside of its jurisdiction. “But if the three governments can agree on jurisdiction, then that’s something we have the right to assume.”
Balancing human rights and evolving health mandates
Frame Lake MPP Kevin O’Reilly asked what legal decisions have been made at the intersection of human rights and vaccine mandates across Canada.
“I don’t think it’s over; I think it plays out,” Dent said.
He stressed that mandates and other related measures must be constantly reviewed, whether they are implemented by governments or companies.
However, “to date, court rulings have supported the decision we made at the height of the pandemic.”