An Ottawa circus artist has filed a human rights complaint against the city, alleging that a bylaw discriminates against female street performers.
Stephanie Wheaton has taken the City of Ottawa to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, arguing a rule banning buskers in the Byward Market from using voice amplification equipment, such as microphones, adversely affects women.
That's because female street performers tend to be less able to project their voices without using microphones than men, Wheaton argues.
Wheaton's solo show, which runs about 45 minutes, consists of juggling, contortions and comedy. She solicits donations at the end.
"To yell for 45 minutes is really, really challenging and it often causes injuries and you can lose your voice very easily," Wheaton said in an interview. "Also, yelling jokes at people is very difficult."
The bylaw, which the city has been enforcing since 2010, Wheaton said, means she can no longer sustain that performance and instead has taken up a non-speaking role in her boyfriend's street show.
"Since then it's been really difficult for me to perform my solo show, but male street performers have been able to continue their shows, so I felt discriminated against," she said.
"I felt like I needed to do something about that so I went to the Human Rights Tribunal."
The city tried to get the application dismissed at a summary hearing, which is held to determine if a case has a reasonable prospect of success. The tribunal refused to dismiss the case at the preliminary stage, but vice-chair Sheri Price said Wheaton must find an expert to back up her position within 21 days.
The City of Ottawa would not comment on the case as it is before the tribunal.
Power of women's voices debated
Voice specialist Dr. Brian Hands said women's voices are normally not as powerful as men's because of learned processes in childhood.
However, he said, he has seen in his work with the Canadian Opera Company, the Stratford Festival and other stage and music shows that women's voices that are trained can be as loud as men's.
"The anatomical makeup of the voice is different in women than in men," Hands said from his Toronto office.
"The cords are thinner in women. They're not as long as in men. But...most women who are successful in any field, be it acting or singing or pop or lawyers speaking, whatever, can speak as loudly as men."
Hands normally works with professionals in controlled environments, he said, and busking is a different matter, where people have to contend with horns, cars and other ambient noise.
"In that situation it is a problem, but I still believe that the use of breath is the most essential feature for getting sound production that is effective, powerful and sustained," Hands said.