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Looking Back, Looking Forward: An Interview with the Chair of the NWT Human Rights Commission

Charles Dent is currently Chair of the NWT Human Rights Commission. Mr. Dent was a Member of the Legislative Assembly at the time the Government first considered bringing forward human rights legislation for the NWT in the early 2000s. He was a member of the Committee responsible for holding public hearings on the NWT Human Rights Act after its introduction in the Legislature. Mr. Dent has a unique perspective on the Act, both as one of the legislators responsible for bringing the Act into existence and as Chair of the Commission now responsible to report to the legislature on its effectiveness. What follows are Mr. Dent's thoughts on the impact the Act has had on the Northwest Territories in the ten years since its implementation.

At the time of its implementation in 2004, the NWT Human Rights Act was the most progressive Act of its kind in Canada. Almost ten years later, do you feel it is still progressive?

Yes, I believe it is still progressive. Just a few weeks ago a press release from Newfoundland pointed out that amendments they are planning to their legislation will bring their Act in line with four other jurisdictions in Canada – one of which is the NWT. That said, our society and language use changes over time, so it's important to review current practice across Canada (and in other places) to see that we include the most up-to-date listing of protected rights in our legislation. For instance, the term gender expression was not common when our Act was passed, whereas it is more commonly used today. While the ground is likely covered, it may be good practice to add it explicitly to our Act. Bringing more clarity to the language in the Act strengthens it and makes it easier for people to understand what is covered.

How could the NWT Human Rights Act be expanded to make it even more progressive?

Like most Acts in Canada ours has led to an overly legalistic system of resolving complaints. When we were considering the Act, politicians wanted to see a process where people from our smallest communities, for whom English was a second language, would be able to simply tell their stories and have their issues dealt with. It hasn't turned out that way and I'm hoping the review of the legislation that we're planning for 2014 might lead to changes that will allow a less "legal" approach. Giving the Commission carriage of complaints, or having the Director's office act as "prosecutor" for complaints might make our legislation more progressive by removing the need for complainants to represent themselves or pay for their own legal counsel.

The cultural make-up of the NWT includes a large Aboriginal population yet race, colour and ancestry are not the most common grounds of complaints in the NWT. Can you talk a little about why that might be?

I hope it indicates that our small population, which is 50% Aboriginal, is more accepting of different racial identities than other places. However, it may be that in our smaller communities people are not well aware of the protection granted by the NWT Human Rights Act, or comfortable with reaching out to the Commission to discuss issues, particularly since we have no human or physical presence in most NWT communities.

What challenges does the NWT Human Rights Commission face working with a relatively small population across such a large geographic area? How do you overcome these challenges?

As you might expect, it is very difficult to provide service to so many very small communities where there is no access by road and the most common language may be one of our nine Aboriginal languages. Having to fly to these many communities to spread awareness and provide outreach programming is extremely expensive and very hard to coordinate. It has taken ten years to have Commission members travel to every community in the NWT, even though that has been a standing priority from the beginning. Our budget allows a maximum of three trips a year to visit communities. We are expanding our use of social media and trying to improve our website to attract more views, but many communities in the north have slow internet connections; many homes do not even have internet access. We hope to take advantage of the tenth-year anniversary of the implementation of the NWT Human Rights Act next year to increase awareness through regional public events. We will also undertake a comprehensive review of the Act and Human Rights administration in the north that we hope will guide our delivery of Human Rights education in the future.

After looking at complaints across the country, it appears that the number one issue facing many human rights offices is discrimination against people with disabilities occurring in the workplace. What special challenges do the people of the NWT face in this area? How does the Human Rights Commission address this issue?

Discrimination against people with disabilities is the area in which we receive the most complaints. Newer buildings in our larger centres have been built using accessible standards, but we have a lot of buildings in smaller centres that are completely inaccessible. In many cases it is not economically feasible to make these buildings accessible since the cost of upgrading may exceed the value of the building. There are very few landlords in small communities – there may be only one or two buildings in which space can be rented – so if someone wants to start a business or a government office expands, they may not have much choice as to location. In Yellowknife, over 50% of businesses are home-based (similar to most northern communities) and few houses are accessible to those with physical disabilities. Our small size and extreme climate make it even more difficult for people with physical disabilities: most communities do not have paved roads nor do they have sidewalks, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for people with physical disabilities to get around when there is snow and ice on the ground for half the year.

When it comes to mental health disabilities, the small, remote nature of our communities presents huge challenges. There are no dedicated mental health facilities in the NWT and relatively few mental health specialists. The size of our communities makes it difficult to staff professional mental health positions – even if the government had the budget to pay for people in every community, it is unlikely we could find professionals to work in all of them. Finding qualified people who are from the region and who have a good understanding of the local cultures and languages is even more difficult.

How do we address the issue? We try to increase awareness so more and more of our residents understand that without equal access, none of us is equal. We use our partnership with the NWT Disabilities Council to help publicize our annual Accessibility Award that we present to a business or government entity that has taken extra steps to improve accessibility. And like other Commissions in Canada, we can use complaints to force change where that becomes necessary.

How do you see technology supporting the mandate and vision of the NWT Human Rights Commission in the future?

It will continue to be important for us to watch for new technology that we can use to get more people talking about human rights in the north. As I mentioned previously, our Commission is trying to use social media more and more to spread the word. Internet access will undoubtedly improve in our smallest communities over the next several years, which should make it easier to get information to our remote population. With high-speed internet now available in all schools in the NWT, the Commission has embarked on a five year program to expand resources in and improve usability of our Teacher's Toolkit – a tool for northern teachers that is tied to the K-12 social studies curriculum.

How do you feel the NWT Human Rights Act should evolve to remain relevant and meaningful to those it seeks to protect?

While I have thought about this a lot since being appointed to the Commission, I've only been actively involved as a Commission member for about eighteen months, so I don't bring a lot of experience to bear on the answer. I hope the comprehensive review of the NWT Human Rights Act the Commission will launch in 2014, through consultation with northerners, will help provide an outline to guide our evolution. I think we should examine the innovative approach taken by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission with its implementation of a restorative justice approach to its complaint process; the north has some history with restorative justice, and I personally believe that a restorative approach to resolving human rights issues might make our Act more relevant to people who don't have easy access to lawyers or can't afford to pay for one. I also think we need to look at how several other Commissions in Canada take carriage of complaints – meaning individuals aren't left unrepresented. While the Commission, Director's Office and Human Rights Adjudication Panel have started working together to find ways to streamline our process, it is likely that to really make our human rights complaints process seamless we will need legislative change.

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