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Human Rights inquiry to decide whether wheelchair access to washrooms is a human right

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – To wash your hands in a restaurant if you so wish is a basic human right, and it shouldn’t matter that you use a wheelchair, says disability advocate/asshole with a shovel Paul Vienneau.

Paul Vienneau speaks with the media during a break in the proceedings. Photo Robert Devet

If you’re like me, and you think that this is pretty obvious, think again. It’s a legal issue, and these things are never simple.

That legal question is in front of a Nova Human Rights inquiry that started this morning at the Chocolate Lake Best Western in Halifax. It’s up to chair Gail Gatchalian to decide whether this is indeed a human rights issue.  

The complaint, lodged by five wheelchair users, Vienneau among them, suggests that the government is selectively enforcing public health laws by allowing restaurants to get away with not providing accessible washrooms to people who live with disabilities and use wheelchairs. David Fraser is the lawyer acting on behalf of the complainants.

To circumvent grandfathered exceptions the focus of the complaint is on restaurants with newly built outdoor patios.

The provincial government does not agree.

It’s a building code issue, not a health issues, says government lawyer Kevin Kindred, and the building code does not allow for retrofits of existing buildings.  Also, the Human Rights Act refers to services, and enforcement of a regulation is not a service. Furthermore, the focus of the food safety act only deal with food safety.

Even if the Board finds for the complainants, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the government has a plan to deal with this through its Accessibility Act, which will come into full effect in 2030, the government argues.

I told you it wasn’t simple.

Wheels of wheelchair are a great way to get crap on your hands

Today we heard from Paul Vienneau and Gordon Stewart of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (who have status at the inquiry).

As well, there was a lengthy session with Karen Wong-Petrie. Director, Environmental Health and Food Safety at the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, the department that is on the hook for this case.

“Solutions can be found, this is absolutely achievable,” said Vienneau when he was called to testify. “Of course people worry about dollars, but there are lots of ways to fix things. It is about human rights after all.”

Vienneau, who has a compromised immune system, told the inquiry how he got violently ill after catching a virus at a  restaurant where he could not wash his hands. As well, he endangered the health of others, he said.

Wheels of wheelchair are a great way to get crap on your hands, he added.

Testimony by Wong-Petrie suggested that the enforcement of food safety standards focus mostly on kitchen staff, not the general public. Her testimony was highly technical, and I will spare you the details.

Human Rights Commission earlier rejected the complaint

That the inquiry is happening at all is a victory all on its own for the complainants.

As is so often the case, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission had rejected the complaint off hand and without formal consideration, and it required a Nova Scotia Supreme Court decision to get the case back on track.

Dismissing a complaint without investigation is counter to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, wrote Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Frank Edwards in his decision issued on March 1st, 2017

When you lodge a complaint you have the right that this complaint will be inquired into, wrote the judge. If as a Commission you feel you’re too busy, go talk to the government, or change the law, but don’t just turn down complaints without providing reasons that are deemed valid in the Human Rights Act.

A similar case against the NSHRC earlier that year, this one launched on behalf of people with disabilities on social assistance, was also decided in favour of the complainants.

We asked whether the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission had changed its processes to comply with that decision.

We are in the process of revising the Commission’s policies and procedures. Once they are approved by Commissioners this fall, they will be publicly available on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission website,” wrote spokesperson Jeff Overmars in an email dated July 4.

The decision was published on March 28, 2017, so it’s been well over a year.  

The enquiry will resume on Friday, which is also expected to be the final day.

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