Renovations at Manitoba Legislature to improve accessibility

The Manitoba Legislative Building is undergoing some renovations that will make it more accessible - and accepting - for those who work and visit the historic structure.

Upgrades to 97-year-old building include new gender neutral bathrooms

The Manitoba Legislative Building is undergoing some renovations that will make it more accessible — and accepting — for those who work and visit the historic structure. 3:10

The Manitoba Legislative Building is undergoing some renovations that will make it more accessible — and accepting —  for those who work and visit the historic structure.

Construction crews are making a part of the chamber of the legislature wheelchair accessible. The work is being done in phases and the goal is to have the top row of seating in the chamber accessible by the fall session in October.

Crews are also doing renovations to make two washrooms in the 97-year-old building gender-neutral.

But the job isn't as simple as, say, your average kitchen reno.

The Manitoba Legislature is getting more wheelchair accessible. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)
Gender neutral bathrooms soon to open at Legislature (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

"It's a very complicated space. There is heritage considerations, the accessibility considerations and also the engineering and architectural considerations, and also what's feasible and what's affordable,"  said Susanne Parent, the acting assistant deputy minister for Accommodation Services with the province.

The government has formed a committee that included representatives from the disabled community. The age and complexity of the building and the chamber meant plenty of research for committee members.

"We looked at all the chambers across Canada and even work to investigate what's being done internationally," Parent said.

Given the chamber's age and unique design, accessibility to the middle row of seats for members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly isn't possible.

Crews have to work carefully around the 97-year-old building. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

The committee is still looking at ways to make it easy for wheelchairs to get on to the floor of chamber. That is something critical for Assiniboia MLA Steven Fletcher. The veteran politician is quadriplegic and raised a point of privilege this past June about accessibility in the chamber.

"There is only one solution and it is the simplest solution, and that is raising the floor so it's flush with the main entrance or to a height where an incline would be of a reasonable length to meet code," Fletcher said. 

Fletcher said he wasn't consulted on the changes being made now or what might be done in the future. When asked why he wasn't canvassed for his opinion, Fletcher said, "no comment."

More upgrades

The chamber isn't the only part of the building getting upgrades. Several door openings in washrooms and work spaces  are being widened, and some doors will have powered access control units installed.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister of Accommodation Services Susanne Parent says the committee looked at legislatures across Canada for ideas on accessibility. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

News that crews are renovating two bathrooms to make them gender neutral is getting positive responses from the LGBT community.

Transgender woman Shandi Strong says a perfectly normal function like going to the bathroom can cause deep anxiety for some people when gender is involved.

"Prior to my surgery when I had to go to a public bathroom I was terrified. I was terrified that someone was going to point a finger at me; keep in mind this was going back many years ago," Strong said.

Strong, who ran as a candidate for the Manitoba Liberal Party in the last provincial election, is pleased the renovations at the legislature include gender-neutral bathrooms. She is thankful the Progressive Conservatives are letting the changes happen.

MLA Steven Fletcher says the floor of the chamber is where the business of government gets done and everyone should have access to it. (CBC)

"We in the LGBT community were very afraid when the [Progressive] Conservatives came to power that we would lose a lot of the things we already have, or have to fight again," Strong said. "I am very pleased to see we didn't have to fight for them."

The cost for the modifications, including the first phase of changes to the chamber, is pegged at $675,000.

The hope is the second phase of renovations to the chamber will be completed in time for the building's 100th anniversary in 2020.