Whitehorse woman files legal challenge to SCAN Act after eviction

·5 min read

A Whitehorse mother of eight has launched a legal challenge against a section of the territory's Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) Act after her family was given a five-day eviction notice in December.

Celia Wright filed a petition to the Yukon Supreme Court on Jan. 7, naming the Yukon government's director of public safety and investigations as a respondent.

Wright is asking the court to both overturn the decision to evict her, arguing that it was made unfairly, and to strike down a part of the act that facilitated the eviction on the grounds that it violates her charter rights.

The SCAN Act allows Yukon government officials to investigate and handle complaints about alleged illegal activity without needing to get the criminal justice system involved. Section 3(2) allows for complaints to be resolved via landlords terminating a lease or tenancy with only five days' notice, regardless of tenancy agreements.

'Draconian and clearly unconstitutional,' lawyer claims

Vincent Larochelle, the lawyer representing Wright, described the section as "draconian and clearly unconstitutional, in my opinion."

"I've worked on a lot of these types of challenges and … when it was first brought to my attention, my first immediate reaction was, 'This is a horrible law,'" he said in an interview Jan. 7.

"This is one of the worst laws that I've seen."

Yukon Department of Justice spokesperson Fiona Azizaj told CBC in an email that the government is aware of the petition but would not be providing comment as it's before the courts.

This is one of the worst laws that I've seen. - Vincent Larochelle, lawyer

Wright, according to the petition, has lived in the Cowley Creek subdivision with her eight children and partner, along with a handful of other family members renting separate suites on the same property, since 2016.

Police raided the home in November as part of a joint investigation with the Canada Revenue Agency and charged Wright and her partner with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking, firearms-related offences and possession of stolen property.

However, Wright was released on bail the same day she was arrested, with one of her conditions requiring her to reside at her home in the Cowley Creek subdivision.

The matter hasn't gone to trial yet.

RCMP/Handout
RCMP/Handout

SCAN officials gave 'surprise visit'

The petition describes Wright as a good tenant who has "always paid rent on time," "never had any issues or disputes with her landlord," and was in talks of purchasing the property in early 2021.

However, on Dec. 9, 2020, Wright "received a surprise visit from unknown Yukon government officials" around noon, the petition says, who served her with an eviction notice and told her that her family, including the relatives living in the separate suits, had to leave the property by Dec. 15.

Wright "invoked the sheer impossibility of packing her family's belongings in such a short amount of time" and the "hopelessness of securing housing in the middle of a Yukon housing crunch" among other things, all "in vain."

"No amount of pleading, explaining, crying or yelling could convince these officials to revisit their decision to evict a family of 10 in the middle of the dark and cold Yukon winter," the petition reads.

No opportunity to see, respond to complaint

Wright was only able to secure more time after hiring a lawyer who sought an injunction that gave her an extension to Jan. 30.

She was never given a chance to see or respond to the complaint that triggered the SCAN action, according to the petition, or provided any reasons for the eviction other than it was allowed under the SCAN Act.

The petition also alleges that Wright's landlord told her partner he felt he was "threatened" by government officials into signing the eviction letter, and that he didn't want to sign it because he thought Wright and her family were "long-term tenants in good standing."

No amount of pleading, explaining, crying or yelling could convince these officials to revisit their decision. - Petition filed on behalf of Wright to Yukon Supreme Court

"The act of evicting someone from their homes is of utmost significance, and is zealously protected by several Yukon laws," the petition argues, requesting a judicial review of the eviction decision. "One would expect a robust process [where] ... an evictee has been provided a fair hearing, and given detailed reasons for the eviction."

The "sequence of events" leading up to officials visiting on Dec. 9 also illustrate "the very real potential for SCAN to be used as an abusive and draconian law," the petition continues. It argues that Wright's right to liberty — such as where she wishes to reside — and right to security of person were both violated.

Another part of the petition describes the section as "arbitrary and overbroad" and "grossly disproportionate," noting that Wright's family members, who are not charged with any crimes, were also subject to the eviction.

It argues that the impact of leaving a family homeless — Wright has not been able to find suitable replacement housing — outweighs any "marginal" benefits removing them from the property would have on public safety.

Larochelle described the concept of being able to evict people just because they're accused of committing a crime as "state-sanctioned gentrification."

"My client is going to live somewhere in the Yukon. She now has a stable house. To the extent that there were some concerns about criminal activity in that house, the police raided her house, so really, it's hard to understand what we stand to gain by evicting her," he said.

"The answer, I think, is nothing."