Montreal's lack of wheelchair-accessible concert venues denounced by visiting performer

Gaelynn Lea, a Minnesota singer and violinist who uses an electric wheelchair, never imagined how difficult it would be to find a Montreal venue that is wheelchair accessible, both for her and her audience.

Gaelynn Lea said she couldn’t find a suitable space accessible to both performers and fans

Gaelynn Lea said she struggled to find an accessible venue for her concert in Montreal. (Submitted by Gaelynn Lea)

When Gaelynn Lea decided to make Montreal a stop on her tour, she never imagined how difficult it would be to find a venue that was wheelchair accessible, both for her and her audience.

"I made a commitment to myself that I was going to stop playing at venues that people with wheelchairs wouldn't be able to get into on their own," Lea, a Minnesota singer and violinist who uses an electric wheelchair, told CBC's Daybreak.

"I was like, 'I've got to find a place that I feel good about playing in.'"

​Originally, her show was going to be at a location with a couple of steps at the entrance.

She spoke to the owners about renting a ramp that could go over the stairs, so that people who use wheelchairs would be able to get in unhindered.

But Lea said that the owners were either unable, or unwilling to do that.

"I think it's OK to be creative about accessibility, but you have to do something, you know?" she said. "This place didn't want to do that. So that's when I started looking for another venue."

But Lea couldn't find one.

She took to Facebook to ask her fans for suggestions and was stunned by how few options there were.

Many of the suggested venues are only partly accessible, and the vast majority were not concert venues, such as a library or local museum.

Only one accessible music venue came up, and it was already booked for the date she planned to be in the city.

"There just weren't very many venues to choose from," Lea lamented. "In Montreal, it is a lot harder to find an accessible space."

A Quebec problem

With the help of Mélanie Bénard, a Montreal-based disability rights lawyer and activist, Lea ended up finding somewhere to play, in the EV Building at Concordia University's downtown campus — but it wasn't an ideal solution.

"It's actually in a kind of workshop-classroom space at Concordia University," Bénard explained. "This is not an official music venue, but this was the best place we could find that was pretty much fully accessible."

Bénard said that there isn't any strong legislation in Quebec when it comes to accessibility. The U.S., for example, has the Americans With Disabilities Act, but in Quebec, there is no equivalent.

While the construction code contains "minimal" accessibility requirements, Bénard said they are not often respected, and they only apply to new construction and buildings undergoing major renovations.

"There's not really any proactive mechanisms in the law where people can actually enforce their right to access," Bénard explained. "So the only option is to file a human rights complaint with the Human Rights Commission."

A complaint with the Human Rights Commission can take more than five years to be resolved.

Bénard said she doesn't know why Quebec — with its reputation for social activism — is not more proactive when it comes to accessibility.

"This is an issue that is just really not on people's radar," she said. "Myself and some colleagues have been working on trying to change that, but it really is an uphill battle."

A performance is occurring this weekend was harder to organize than it should have been, and the performer and her advocates here, are speaking out. Gaelynn Lea is a Minnesota-based musician who uses an electric wheelchair to get around, but she couldn't find a venue that was accessible. We speak to Gaelynn, and Melanie Benard, a disability rights lawyer who helped Gaelynn find a venue. 14:25

The show must go on

Despite everything, Lea said she is still excited for her show in Montreal. But she wished more venues in the city met the bare minimum of accessibility.

"I want there to be a ramp or no stairs to get in and then also access to the bathroom," she said. "You shouldn't have to have somebody carry you in. It doesn't help you to be independent and just enjoy yourself."

Lea said that if a child in a wheelchair wanted to come to her show, she wants that experience to be an empowering one — not something that highlights how difficult life can be. Having an accessible venue is part of that experience.

"I want to send a message to venues that people with disabilities can be [performers and customers] ... and that they want to have similar access to the venue in the same way that everybody else gets to just walk in and enjoy it," she said.

"That would be the ultimate goal for me."


Gaelynn Lea performs in Montreal at Concordia University's EV Building, Room 11.655, 1515 Ste-Catherine Street West, on Saturday, May 12 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, click here.

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