Debate not closed
Opponent takes complaint to Supreme Court of the NWT

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

NNSL (July 7/97) - A woman who believes she lost her job because of her views on traditional knowledge is sending her complaint to the Supreme Court of the NWT.

Frances Widdowson's battle transcends the traditional knowledge debate, however. She is also colliding with the GNWT's basic policy on human rights.

The former senior policy analyst said her contract with the Department of Resources wasn't renewed this spring because of her strong, public views on traditional knowledge.

"That will be part of the compensation I'm seeking," said Widdowson, who is now living in Toronto.

She first complained to the Fair Practices Office of the NWT when she was suspended without pay in January for co-writing an anti-TK article in xxxPolicy Options, a southern political journal.

After returning to work, she continued to refuse to accepting aboriginal spirituality as a form of knowledge. "The government's traditional knowledge policy is really religious propaganda masquerading as knowledge," she said.

"Asking employees to incorporate 'spiritual teachings' with scientific findings based on evidence is an impossible task for employees who are required to use rational judgment as part of their job."

Her complaint was thrown out by the Fair Practices officer.

She claimed that the officer told her that even though they had the jurisdiction to investigate the complaint, the facts did not constitute discrimination under the NWT Fair Practices Act.

While the debate over the role traditional knowledge should play in formulating government policy is far from settled, there is a larger debate going on about the jurisdiction of the Fair Practices office.

Another court case that may be on its way to the Supreme Court of Canada will determine if in fact the Fair Practices office upholds the Canadian Human Rights Act, as far as the GNWT goes.

The Union of Northern Workers pay-equity complaint in 1989 may now be on its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. This decision, if the court agrees to hear it, will challenge the jurisdiction of the Fair Practices Act on issues relating to the GNWT.

Shirley Johnson, Fair Practices officer for the NWT, said that the legislative assembly says the act have jurisdiction over the GNWT. While they have this authority, Johnson said that she has never had to render a decision in connection with a complaint against the territorial government.

Johnson wouldn't comment specifically on the Widdowson case.

Bob Fagan, regional director of the Human Rights Commission in Edmonton, said that the NWT hasn't yet passed comprehensive human rights legislation, the Fair Practices Act notwithstanding.

Until this happens, said Fagan, "we have jurisdiction over the GNWT."

He maintains that the GNWT can't fall under both jurisdictions -- that of the federal Human Rights Act or the territorial Fair Practices Act.

"There's no such thing -- it's either provincial (territorial) or federal -- it can't be both," he said.

Fagan didn't know whether or not Widdowson's complaint would constitute discrimination under the Human Rights Act. But if the decision is deemed in the Supreme Court of the NWT that she wasn't discriminated against, Widdowson may take it to Human Rights Commission.

"I basically brought it to the Fair Practices officer because I found her easier to deal with (in Yellowknife)," Widdowson said.

But Widdowson said she will wait to see how the situation plays out with the Fair Practices Office.

She also said that the North hasn't heard the last from her about traditional knowledge. She is co-authoring a book about the Northern political situation, and traditional knowledge will definitely be a part of that work.

"It's the most problematic policy in government I've ever had to deal with," she said.