'Bathroom privilege': Edmonton urged to improve access to public washrooms

Parents, advocates and retail experts say public bathroom access is not inclusive but making improvements has many benefits.

'People will judge you - judge your bathroom worthiness - based on whether they like the cut of your jib'

The public washroom on Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard is one of 114 across the city. (Peter Evans/CBC)

It's a predicament many parents can relate to: being in a public place with a child who needs to pee, and nowhere to go.

At a children's outlet box store last week in Edmonton, Priyanka Dev was told her two year old couldn't use the staff washroom — the only washroom in the store.

 With nowhere to go, she asked a second employee who agreed, only to be yelled at by the manager.

"I couldn't understand. The place is for the kids. Why don't they have any washroom for the kids?" Dev said, just hours after the incident. 

Unlike cities such as Toronto that have passed bylaws requiring all retailers to offer customers washroom access, Edmonton has no current bylaw requiring public washrooms.

Washrooms are regulated by provincial building codes, under the jurisdiction of Municipal Affairs, said city officials. The code specifies the minimum number of washroom fixtures required based on the  number of occupants and the building's use.
Priyanka Dev was denied access to a store washroom recently raising the question of what parents should do when their kids have to go. (Submitted by Priyanka Dev)

"The Alberta Building Code does not specify who the occupants are — whether for staff or customers," wrote city spokesperson Denise McGee.

In April, the city launched a strategy that aims to improve accessibility and fix some common complaints such as safety and cleanliness for its 114 public washrooms.

The initiative also involves identifying gaps in service and exploring partnerships with businesses to provide washrooms to non-paying patrons and identifying gaps in service. 

'Intense bathroom radar'

Halifax-based journalist Lezlie Lowe, who recently published No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs, consulted on Edmonton's strategy. 
Journalist Lezlie Lowe consulted on Edmonton's public washroom strategy. (Riley Smith)

She says her own relationship to public toilets changed when she had kids.

"I found as my kids were toilet training I had this intense bathroom radar. So I was always looking for public bathrooms and as somebody who had spent their whole life as a housed, cis-gender privileged, healthy, able-bodied person I had never given that much thought to public bathrooms," Lowe said in an interview.

Through her research, Lowe came to see  "layers of bathroom privilege."

"It is a question of privilege because people will judge you — judge your bathroom worthiness — based on whether they like the cut of your jib," Lowe said.

"And that's allowed because those are private bathrooms because code does not say you must provide for customers or for patrons or for anybody who walks in. And that's the problem with publicly accessible bathrooms, and that just underscores the need for cities to step up and make bathrooms part of what they provide like benches and street lamps."

Customer experience

Retail experts say it also makes good business sense and more stores are moving in this direction. 

"Any retailer that's able to do it within reason, within their space to offer these amenities, is going to benefit," said Craig Patterson, a director at University of Alberta's School of Retail.

"It's all about getting consumers not to shop online. If we can buy something online the question is why would we go into a store. So you know smart retailers now are finding ways to make people comfortable and to have an experience."

Karl Littler, senior vice president with the Retail Council of Canada, said limitations of a store's infrastructure might factor into whether a store can provide a public washroom. 

"How easy it is to put in a washroom will depend a little bit on the size of the store and the plumbing and everything else," Littler said.

"That said, for most retailers you want people to have a positive customer experience. You want people to stay in your store. So I would think  that in most cases it would make sense to try and provide whatever accommodation you can and obviously emergency circumstances being what they are, I think there's a human side to it as well."

Washroom access program

In 2015, the GoHere Washroom Access Program was launched to improve washroom access for the 270,000 Canadians living with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. 

Participating businesses display a GoHere decal on their storefront window while a digital app locates accessible washrooms.

According to Crohn's and Colitis Canada, faced with the anxiety of an accident, many stay home while those who go out must plan around publicly accessible washroom locations. That could also include some pregnant mothers, seniors and others with health conditions that cause incontinence.