In Yukon, concern the threshold is too low for evictions prompted by citizen complaints
The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act can lead to evictions when neighbours see illegal activity
Yukon housing advocates are concerned the territory's Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act (SCAN) is putting vulnerable people at even more risk.
It's been 12 years since SCAN went into effect, creating a unit within the Department of Justice to investigate confidential complaints from citizens who are concerned about drugs or illegal activity in their area.
If investigators find habitual, illegal activity, and determine it's having an adverse effect on the community, the SCAN unit can issue formal warnings or get a five-day eviction order. Depending on the situation, it often conducts investigations in cooperation with the RCMP.
In the last three years, the department has received over 180 complaints, and 39 "operational closures" were issued as a result of SCAN investigations. Most of those have been landlord-assisted evictions.
Since 2006, three evictions have come about following court-issued community safety orders.
Those numbers are troublesome to Meg Grudeski, housing coordinator at the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.
"I think that having an opportunity to raise concerns about activity in your neighbourhood is a great thing," she said. "But it has also potentially led to over-reporting, or people who aren't necessarily the problematic person being impacted by SCAN."
Grudeski is concerned investigations can be triggered by information that is "subjective and maybe not very substantiated."
"It feels like there's a fairly low threshold for having someone go on the RCMP radar for further investigation," she said.
The government lists "common signs of illegal activities" on its SCAN webpage. They include things such as blackened windows or curtains that are always drawn, people making frequent short visits at all hours of the day or night, strange odours, or extensive investment in home security.
"How do we know for sure that something is going on if we're not engaging with that person, or checking in or having a dialogue with our neighbours?"
Grudeski is concerned that SCAN encourages a "not in my backyard" mentality, or what she calls "NIMBY-ism".
"Neighbours are concerned about who might be coming, because of social connections with the person living at that property," said Grudeski. "But my discomfort gets translated into some pretty concrete, consequential actions."
Others working in housing and harm reduction have echoed her concerns but declined to go on the record.
Grudeski says SCAN also runs contrary to "Housing First" — a harm reduction approach where people are allowed to drink or use drugs while being housed. Housing First means that access to permanent housing is not contingent upon sobriety.
"It feels like there's always going to be a conflict between Housing First and SCAN," Grudeski said. "We're putting people at risk who are already at risk — just this revolving cycle of marginalizing people who are already marginalized."
She wants to see citizens pursuing dialogue and being "more neighbourly."
"I think there are other options than escalating to the point where we might be endangering or putting vulnerable folks into more vulnerable situations," Grudeski said. "It's about driving conversation, it's about driving education. It's about pushing people's comfort zones."
'Quite broad powers'
SCAN legislation exists in several other provinces. Manitoba was the first to enact its SCAN Act in 2001, and B.C.'s was adopted in 2013. All are similar to Yukon's legislation, and all are controversial, according to civil liberties advocates.
"These are quite broad powers that can have drastic impacts on people's lives without the legal process that might attend a criminal proceeding," said Rob De Luca, director of the public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
SCAN investigators must prove on a balance of probabilities that illegal activity is taking place and adversely affecting the neighbourhood, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. De Luca calls that "not a very high standard," when housing rights are at stake.
"It's a very dramatic power to be able to evict someone with only five days notice," he said.
De Luca says even complaints that are ultimately dropped require "some basic minimal surveillance," raising concerns about privacy rights.
"It does create a system where a neighbour who has concerns, legitimate or illegitimate, about another neighbour, can basically deputize the Department of Justice officials into surveilling a neighbour. The way the statute is written, that's one of the aspects of the legislation that could be challenged on privacy grounds."
De Luca also says he sees issues of bias and profiling happening in other provinces.
He believes SCAN laws pass because "the classes of people the legislation is most likely to affect negatively, don't have the same sort of political capital" to fight against it.
Investigations are thorough, government says
Jacqueline Davies, the acting director of public safety and investigations with Yukon's Department of Justice, says she has full confidence in SCAN's investigative process.
"We have a very high threshold," she said. "Once we get the complaint, we thoroughly investigate it. Investigations aren't done overnight, they take a long time to do."
Complaints must meet three tests before SCAN can take action: the reported activity must be illegal, habitual, and have an adverse effect on the community.
"We only take action when those tests have been deemed to be met," said Davies.
Davies believes Housing First and SCAN can co-exist. She highlighted the different tools available to SCAN investigators.
"We don't necessarily have to go with an eviction right off. We have the ability to do warnings, formal written warnings, landlord-assisted evictions and community safety orders," Davies said. "We actually work with the individuals to try to address the issues at the lowest level possible, first."
Operational closures are up
According to Davies, the number of complaints has stayed roughly the same in recent years, but more of them are meeting the standards for action under SCAN. The number of operational closures has increased by around 15 per cent each year.
But Davies doesn't believe the uptick is anything to be concerned about.
"Things change over time and it's just one of those things that ebb and flow," she said.
"I think every time we do a SCAN investigation, and we're able to provide some respite to the community by disrupting activities that fit under the SCAN legislation, that is an opportunity that other members of the public can say, 'This is a tool that I can be involved in. I can actually be helpful to our community and help continue to make our community safe,'" said Davies.
"The great thing about the SCAN Act is it's complaint-driven. It's really the public that are actually taking the initiative and reporting things, and saying, 'you know what? I'm not happy with this activity and I want it to stop.'"
She said there are currently no plans to review the legislation.