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Justice minister defends decision to replace entire roster of Sask. human rights commissioners

Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre says the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissioners needed to be a 'refreshed' due to retirements, resignations and expired terms. (Alexander Quon/CBC - image credit)
Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre says the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissioners needed to be a 'refreshed' due to retirements, resignations and expired terms. (Alexander Quon/CBC - image credit)

Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre is defending changes at the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which has seen the chief commissioner and all other commissioners replaced as of Thursday.

"The terms of all the former commissioners had expired. The majority were appointed around 2015," Eyre said in an interview on Thursday.

"We had two resignations, one for personal reasons, one retirement."

Eyre said interim chief commissioner Barry Wilcox and three other commissioners had their terms expire. Wilcox was also retiring as of Wednesday.

"During my time with the Commission, I've had the chance to work with so many intelligent, dedicated, and principled people. I'm grateful for that opportunity and I'm proud of the work we've done to protect, promote, and advance human rights in Saskatchewan," Wilcox said in a statement on Monday.

Eyre said it is "good governance" to "refresh" the board after a period of years.

Changes to the commission were made through an order in council on Jan. 25.

The order included the appointment of a new chief commissioner Treena Sikora, a deputy chief commissioner Rish Malhotra and five other commissioners:

  • Darlene Cooper.

  • Judy Desjarlais.

  • Melissa Ong.

  • Mubarik Syed.

  • Alan Thomarat.

Eyre said the appointed people come from varied backgrounds, and bring different perspectives and experiences.

"Important considerations for the Human Rights Commission have traditionally been that there's representation from Indigenous communities. We now have Judy Desjarlais, she is a Dene speaker and has extensive experience with the justice system. She's from Buffalo River First Nation and currently a town administrator," Eyre said.

Eyre pointed out that while the board has been revamped, the staff at the SHRC remains.

"The commissioners are a consultative body. They're like the board. Commissioners meet four times a year and their responsibilities are mainly governance, fiscal oversight, strategic direction and a lot of community engagement."

Commissioner Wilcox said while improvement and progress had been made in addressing discrimination in receiving housing since the 2018 report, systemic barriers and other challenges persist.
Commissioner Wilcox said while improvement and progress had been made in addressing discrimination in receiving housing since the 2018 report, systemic barriers and other challenges persist.

Former Interim Saskatchewan Human Rights Chief Commissioner Barry Wilcox stepped down from his role as of Jan. 31. He had been with the SHRC since 2011. (Novus Law Group)

Eyre said Wilcox will provide some mentoring to incoming chief commissioner Treena Sikora.

"Treena is an experienced lawyer. She has been the chair of the Saskatchewan Police Commission, chair of the Saskatchewan Police Chief Training Advisory Committee, and she has had a very diverse career."

The new chief commissioner will receive $210,000 annually.

Former commissioner questions full-scale changes

Heather Kuttai, a former commissioner, said she is concerned about the full-scale turnover at the commission.

"I was surprised. It's not my experience to eliminate and replace an entire board all at once. There's usually some continuity, some sort of leftover. They call it corporate memory and there will be none of that, not even with the [new] chief," Kuttai said.

"Everybody is brand new. It's highly unusual from my experience."

Kuttai resigned from the commission in October, following the government's decision to go ahead with a naming and pronoun policy for gender-diverse students in the province.

"I don't regret anything. I'm glad I did what I did. It was hard. I would do it again, if nothing else but to send a message to the gender-diverse youth of our province that there are a lot of people who support them and want to uphold their basic human rights," Kuttai said.

Commission critical of Bill 137

Shortly after Kuttai's resignation on Oct. 19, the human rights commission released a statement calling the provincial government Parental Rights Bill 137 and use of the notwithstanding clause "disappointing."

"This proposed legislation has polarized parents throughout the province and has led to the resignation of one of our valued Commissioners, Heather Kuttai," the statement said.

"Rather than proceeding with the proposed legislation, we encourage the Government to work with the Commission to find middle ground through consultation."

The government passed Bill 137 on Oct. 20.

Kuttai said it's important that a new board has a diverse representation. She said at first glance it is not clear to her if any of the commissioners represent those who typically raise human rights concerns.

"I don't see any disability experience around that table, at least not at first. There could be, but nobody's stepping up to say that there is any."

Kuttai said the commission also needs representation from the LGBTQ community.

"I don't believe in ticking off boxes, but I do believe in representation, and I think that there are areas that could be strengthened around the Commission table."

"Understanding, promoting and championing human rights in Saskatchewan is really important work."