Disability continues to be at the heart of most human rights complaints in the Northwest Territories, according to the NWT Human Rights Commission’s most recent annual report.

Representatives of the tribunal briefed the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Government Operations on their 2020-21 report on April 26.

From April 2020 to March 2021, the office of the executive director of the Commission received 30 new complaints; Of these, 18 — or 60 per cent — were related to disabilities. The next most common grounds for complaints were sex, with nine, and race, age, and ethnic origin, which had five each.

One of the biggest barriers to accessibility, is the territory’s building code, said the Commission’s chair, Charles Dent. The current National Standard of Canada for accessible building design includes protocols for making facilities accessible to those with physical and other disabilities. Dent said the standards in the National Building Code, which the NWT uses, aren’t as strong.

“If you only use the building code, you’re going to wind up with a situation where, the day you open your building — we can’t say this would happen for sure, but it is possible — that someone might face a situation where they might feel they are unable to get into that washroom and use it properly,” said Dent.

Despite these challenges, Dent was optimistic: “I believe we’ve already become one of the fairest and most accessible systems in Canada,” he said. “When we finish implementing the changes, we will provide an enviable example for other jurisdictions.”

“A major problem” that reserves are outside the Commission’s jurisdiction

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos pointed out that the territory’s two reserves, including Salt River, are outside the jurisdiction of the territory’s human rights commission. “As the former chief of Salt River, that is a major problem,” she said. “The people that do the adjudication from another jurisdiction, whether it be Ottawa or whatever, do not know the circumstances at the reserve or know the people, and that could be a big barrier.”

the Tribunal will still work with complainants from reserves who come to them, even if it’s only to assist them in filing a complaint with the federal tribunal. “If they come to us, we’re happy to work with them,” he said.

Martselos said complaints still ought to be adjudicated at the territorial level; She said she knew of some cases where complainants were turned away from the territorial commission and told to lodge their complaints at the federal level.

Dent acknowledged that the local, territorial and federal governments would all have to be in agreement for the territorial commission to take on a complaint outside its jurisdiction. “But if the three governments can agree on jurisdiction, then that’s something we have a right to take on.”

Balance between human rights and health mandates in constant flux

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly asked what legal decisions hade been made on the intersection of human rights and vaccine mandates across Canada.

“I don’t think it’s played out; I think it’s playing out,” said Dent.

He stressed that mandates and other related measures need to be constantly revisited, whether they are implemented by governments or corporations.

However, “to date the legal decisions have supported the decision that we took during the peak of the pandemic.”

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