What should have been a straightforward ferry trip on Marine Atlantic became a stressful experience for a group of Canadian war veterans travelling with a service dog.
One of the men, Dan Welch, an Afghanistan war veteran, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a certified service dog, Grunt.
J.R. Smith, one of Welch's friends who was travelling with him, said they had no problems on the ferry trip to Newfoundland from North Sydney.
But the party of three and Grunt were confronted by Marine Atlantic staff as soon as they tried to board the return ferry at Port aux Basques.
"They were deeming [Grunt] a comfort animal even though he was clearly wearing a service dog vest," Smith told the St.John's Morning Show. "They refused to accept the paperwork."
Smith said war veterans often have difficulty with other people standing too close to them. Grunt helps create space for Welch by standing behind his back and also helps him with his anxiety and nightmares.
Marine Atlantic refused to accept the paperwork Welch had for Grunt. But Smith said when they asked Marine Atlantic what kind of paperwork they needed, staff replied that they didn't know.
The veterans were allowed on the ferry, but had problems with the staff throughout the trip.
"We were confronted seven times by different people on the way over," said Smith. "So they weren't even speaking to each other. Once it would be cleared with one person, we'd pass someone else and it would start over."
'They just looked at us like we were a bunch of bikers even though we told them we were war vets and this is a service animal.' - J.R. Smith
When asked if it had been possible to reason with the staff, Smith said no.
"They didn't care who we were or what we were doing," said Smith. "They automatically saw guys on motorcycles because the dog did travel 6,000 km in the sidecar of a motorcycle. They just looked at us like we were a bunch of bikers even though we told them we are war vets and this is a medical animal."
Smith went on to say they had never been treated so badly. At one point he had to go to customer service to get back the papers for Grunt and had two Marine Atlantic staff screaming at him to muzzle Grunt, but they didn't have a muzzle. Two other staff members then went to Welch's cabin to confront him.
This experience was in complete contrast with a flight that Welch took to California on WestJet where Grunt was given a seat for free. Welch was also given a free lunch and each crew member shook his hand.
After the trip, Smith sent Marine Atlantic a lengthy account of their experience.
In an interview with CBC Radio's On The Go on Wednesday, Don Barnes, vice president of customer experience for Marine Atlantic said he had spoken with Welch about the incident.
"At its root, we do not have a clear definition of what a service animal is," said Barnes.
"We talked a lot about the need for a better understanding of the issues involved and the struggles and challenges faced by people with PTSD and this whole new emerging area of service animals for atypical or non-traditional kinds of support."
He said that while most people are familiar with service dogs working in the role of a seeing eye dog, some people are still learning about service animals providing other types of support.
Barnes said that Marine Atlantic front-line employees receive training every two years on how to support passengers with disabilities.
Human rights violation
St. John's lawyer David Moores believes Welch's human rights were violated during that trip.
"There is a legal issue here," David Moores told Radio Noon. "We have a large federal government-owned organization that is from what I can see discriminating against a gentleman who has a bona fide disability, namely post-traumatic stress disorder."
Moores himself has been treated differently on Marine Atlantic depending on whether he boards with a motorcycle versus a car.
"You're treated differently when you're on a motorcycle," said Moores. "When you get on the boat deck you're looked down upon as a nuisance. It's just not good treatment."
Moores advised Welch to seriously consider making a human rights complaint.
"The reality is you and I are not going to hold Marine Atlantic to account by jumping up and down and writing a lot of letters and getting on the radio," said Moores. "I think they need to be held to account and be told what it is they're supposed to do which is follow your own policy, educate your staff, train your staff and support your staff."
The Coalition of Persons with Disabilities issued a statement Wednesday reminding communities, businesses and municipalities in the province that "service dogs are an important aid to persons with disabilities."