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Groups fear politics could poison human rights law

Jennifer McPhee
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 28/02) - Keep up pressure on politicians, urged participants at a public forum to discuss proposed human rights legislation.

The Federation of Labour hosted a two-day conference last week to discuss problems with the legislation.

During the Friday session, labour and social advocacy groups helped draft a list of joint recommendations. The list was presented at a public forum Saturday evening.

"A lot of the recommendations and conditions reflect on the state of democracy in the NWT," said the Public Service Alliance of Canada regional representative Ben McDonald. "They show people don't trust the (legislative) assembly to protect human rights."

One of the recommendations is that members of a human rights commission be nominated by people outside the legislature.

The recommendation calls for a commission of up to six members, with four of these nominated by labour, non-government organizations (NGO), aboriginal groups and open nominees.

Then, according to the recommendation, the NWT commissioner should appoint one person representing labour, one NGO, one aboriginal, two open and one person from the legislative assembly to the commission. One of these should be an elder and the commission's composition represent women equally.

This would prevent the body from "being affected or poisoned by the political positions of the day," said Barb Saunders, executive director of the NWT Status of Women Council.

Impatience and distrust

"It's a radical move ... but it does show dissatisfaction, impatience and distrust of political leaders," she said.

PSAC regional executive vice president Jean-Francois Des Lauriers recalled how human rights legislation in British Columbia was reduced when the provincial government changed hands.

"My fear is exactly that. Any legislation belongs to the legislature. And in future years they could revamp the act to make it more restrictive."

Des Lauriers added, "even if the legislature grants everything that we wish for, it will not be the end, he said. "We will have to be on them like a hawk because it's never over."

Another group recommendation is that an ombudsman or human rights advocate (at arms length from the commission) assist people with complaints.

And that the commissioner of the NWT appoint legal counsel for those who can't afford it.

Raj Dhaliwal, Canadian Auto Workers director of human rights, pointed to the fact that social conditions is now included as discriminatory grounds in the proposed act.

He said the NWT has a chance to have "one of the best human rights legislations in the country."

"But if pressure is not put on politicians, time will pass by and nothing will happen," he continued. "We must demand politicians act on the recommendations."

The territorial government is conducting consultations on the new legislation for the upcoming October session.