New human rights legislation for the Northwest Territories

Human Rights Act establishes permanent adjudication panel

On July 1, 2004, new human rights legislation, the Human Rights Act, came into force in the Northwest Territories. The act establishes a permanent adjudication panel to process complaints and a Human Rights Commission. These bodies did not exist in the previous legislation.

Employers, those who offer goods and services to the public and those who rent accommodations in the N.W.T. will be affected by the act. They should be aware of the new grounds of discrimination, the new processes for filing and adjudicating claims, and the powers of the Human Rights Commission and its employees.

Several of these prohibited grounds were not included in previous legislation. (For a full list of the prohibited grounds, see box on this page.) In one case the act provides a definition. “Social condition” is the inclusion of an individual in “a socially identifiable group that suffers from social or economic disadvantage.” As well the act now specifically provides that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex.

The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. This is not new. What is new is that the act goes on to give examples of diseases or conditions that constitute a disability, including diabetes, epilepsy and hearing and speech impairments. Discrimination on the basis of a disability not only applies to someone who has a disability but also to someone who is believed to be likely to develop a disability.

Another new feature of the act is a prohibition against “discrimination by association.” Employers cannot discriminate against someone because he associates, or its thinks he associates, with someone who is in a class protected by the Human Rights Act. For example, discrimination against homosexuals is prohibited as is discrimination against those who associate or who are believed to associate with homosexuals.

The act prohibits harassment on any of the prohibited grounds. Harassment is specifically defined as engaging in conduct or vexatious comment “that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.”

Human Rights Commission

The act establishes a permanent Human Rights Commission. The commission will administer the act and promote its understanding, acceptance and compliance.

The commission can enter into agreements with community organizations in the N.W.T. to provide educational programs on human rights, and to provide mechanisms for resolving disputes filed under the act.

The act also sets out a more rigorous procedure for dealing with complaints than existed previously. The commission will have a director who will report to the commission every three months on the status of complaints under the act. The director will also ensure efforts are made, by mediation or otherwise, to resolve every complaint. The director may decide to defer a complaint if it is felt another proceeding is able to deal with it or to dismiss some or all of the complaint.

Complaints may also be investigated by a commission employee prior to being referred to adjudication. Previously there was no ability to investigate complaints.

Permanent adjudication panel

Complaints that are not resolved or dismissed will be referred to adjudication by members of a permanent adjudication panel. This panel will be separate from the Human Rights Commission.

The adjudication panel will be made up of members with an interest in and sensitivity to human rights. They will be either lawyers with at least five years’ practice or others who have five years’ experience as members of a tribunal or court. Complaints will be referred to one member of the adjudication panel for hearing.

Time limits for complaints

A concern with the previous human rights legislation was that there are no time limits for filing a complaint or for having complaints dealt with. Under the act complaints must be filed within two years. The director can extend this time limit if the delay in filing was in good faith and does not prejudice anyone. The commission can also recommend to the commissioner regulations specifying time periods for inquiring into and investigating complaints and for referring complaints to adjudication. This will likely mean that additional time periods will be put in place to make sure that complaints are processed and decided in a timely fashion.

Glenn Tait is a partner in the labour and employment practice group in the Yellowknife office of McLennan Ross. He can be reached at [email protected] or (867) 766-7676.

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