Three visually impaired people in Saint John have filed complaints with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission over the loss of free bus service in the city.

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Saint John Transit stopped offering free bus rides for visually impaired passengers in July. (CBC)

Saint John Transit had been offering free bus rides for blind and partially sighted passengers for decades, but started charging those passengers full fare in July, citing concerns about discrimination and that other groups with disabilities would ask to be accommodated.

Gerald Harris, Scott Rinehart and Andrew Wilson say they hope to "right a wrong" and restore free transit for legally blind people in the city who hold CNIB cards.

They contend Saint John Transit's board of directors voted on Feb. 21 to discontinue the free service, based on incorrect information in a report from staff.

The report suggested that many other municipal transit systems had also stopped offering free bus rides to the blind "primarily because they have been challenged by other disabled groups for the same consideration," the three complainants said in a statement released during a news conference on Tuesday.

"The facts are that free bus transportation for the legally blind has not been discontinued at most transit systems in Canada and that many transit systems have not discontinued free transit for the legally blind because of legal challenges by other disabled groups," they said.

'Section 15 (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually protects an accommodation like that, rather than prohibits it.' - Pat Riley, spokesperson

Pat Riley, who speaks for the complainants, says Moncton, Halifax, Hamilton and Ottawa are just four of the cities that still recognize CNIB cards.

The complainants argue the board should have exercised due diligence by asking for documentation to substantiate staff's claims and question whether board members have ever received any governance training with respect to their fiduciary duties.

They also question why CNIB was not consulted "on this most important matter."

"We're determined to get these bus passes back and we're sure the law is behind us," said Riley. "We're very hopeful because the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission provides for a mediation process, that we can do it simply by getting the right information out," he said.

"Section 15 (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually protects an accommodation like that, rather than prohibits it."

Section 15 of the Charter deals with equality rights. Subsection (1) states: "Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."

Subsection 2 goes on to say: "Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."

The three complainants say free bus transit for the legally blind was instituted in communities across Canada and around the world for several valid reasons, including:

  • Legally blind people can't be accommodated to drive their own vehicles.
  • Legally blind people have a right to transportation to access their health, education, employment and other human rights.
  • Legally blind people have a right to dignity and now having to depend on family and friends, when possible, to access their human rights.
  • Eight out of 10 legally blind people do not have a job and have an inferior standard of living compared to other Canadians. The labour force participation rate is 20 per cent for blind persons, 44 per cent for persons with disabilities and 73 per cent for non-disabled Canadians.

Thirty-eight CNIB clients use Saint John Transit on a regular basis.

The three complainants pledge their full co-operation in the Human Rights Commission's mediation process.