North·In Depth

A Yellowknife woman's torturous bathroom trip, and ensuing legal battle

A Yellowknife woman with multiple sclerosis suffered a 'humiliating experience' and was discriminated against by the N.W.T. legislative assembly, an adjudicator has ruled.

Elizabeth Portman was discriminated against by N.W.T. legislative assembly, rules adjudicator

Elizabeth Portman filed her human rights complaint against the N.W.T. legislative assembly almost three years ago. Last week, she finally got closure. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

A Yellowknife woman with multiple sclerosis suffered a "humiliating experience" and was discriminated against by the N.W.T. legislative assembly when she raised concerns about the building's lack of automatic door openers, only to become trapped in a bathroom two years later partly because an opener still hadn't been installed.

That was the decision Thursday of Adrian Wright, the adjudicator ruling on a human rights complaint Elizabeth Portman filed against the legislative assembly in 2013.

One of several automatic door openers that were installed at the legislative assembly in response to Portman's complaints. (Guy Quenneville/CBC )

In a often sternly-worded ruling, Wright found that, in its delayed response to Portman's concerns about the heavy wooden door to the washroom for disabled persons, the assembly "reacted as though it was wrong of [Portman] to raise these issues and to push them to resolution.

"All this has caused her to suffer injury to feelings, dignity and self-respect," he concluded.

Portman has declined to comment on her victory, her third human rights triumph in two months. (Another ruling, also released last week, centred partly on accessibility issues at the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool in Yellowknife.)

But the N.W.T. Disabilities Council is praising Portman for bringing the issue to light, and for representing herself in what can be an intimidating process for those like Portman who can't afford a lawyer.

"I would hope in the future that a resolution is possible without having to have legal action as the thread to make a barrier addressed," said Denise McKee, the council's executive director.    

$10K in damages

Wright has ordered the assembly to pay Portman $10,000 in damages by the end of October.

"The legislative assembly accepts the decision of the adjudication panel and will comply with it fully," Speaker Jackson Lafferty said in a press release Tuesday.

"This has been a valuable learning experience and one that has resulted in significant improvements to the accessibility of our building by all members of the public. I sincerely regret that Ms. Portman suffered the indignity that she did in 2013."

A representative of the assembly declined to take part in an interview.

'No one else was saying anything'  

Automatic door openers were finally installed in 2014, following a number of earlier renovations, some spurred by Portman's concerns. All told, the assembly has spent $315,000 to remove barriers in the building. 

But as Portman argued, the remedy for that door came too late.

Portman first raised a host of issues about accessibility with the sergeant at arms, Brian Thagard, in the summer of 2011.

She had recently watched a man with two canes struggle into his seat in the public gallery, because the gallery (at the time) had no open-faced seats.

"It was a crystallizing moment," said Portman during her testimony in a cramped room at a Yellowknife seniors home last May, with one of her legs propped up on an upturned garbage can. "No one else was saying anything."

She noticed other things at the assembly, too:  

  • People in wheelchairs were being confined to the back right side of the gallery, instead of being integrated with the rest of the gallery;
  • There was no nearby seating for companions of people in wheelchairs;
  • The glass doors leading to the downstairs cafeteria and washrooms looked too narrow. (She was right: the doors weren't as wide as the 2010 National Building Code called for.);
  • And, as her follow-up email to Thagard put it, the door to the washroom for disabled people was "very heavy" and "does not come equipped with an automatic door opener."

"In my experience, it's just a genuine oversight," she said of those shortcomings. "I didn't get that feeling [here]."

Trapped in the bathroom

A month after Portman's email to Thagard, the assembly called on Pin/Taylor Architects, the Yellowknife-based company that designed the building, to look into whether the areas Portman identified met the building code of the day.

"The fact that the legislative assembly went back to a designer who had designed a building with barriers in place, that's nuts," said Portman.  

Pin/Taylor echoed Portman's email, writing that the "wooden door appears a little bit heavy to open."

A report filed in 2011 by the assembly's designer, Pin/Taylor Architects, about the heaviness of the door that, two years later, would prove a factor in Portman's being trapped in one of the building's bathrooms. (N.W.T. Legislative Assembly )

But using "rudimentary equipment," according to Thagard, the firm ultimately decided the pressure required to open the door was not enough to warrant a change to the door or its hardware.

Two years later, on Nov. 16, 2013, Portman found out very differently.

Portman, who was on crutches because of a broken foot, was attending a meeting at the assembly. On a bathroom break, she struggled to open the door. So she opted for the women's washroom.

The toilet stall didn't have a grab bar, however, forcing her — after several panicked minutes during which her mind raced and her legs went numb — to prop herself up using the bottom of the stall door.

Portman nearly lost her balance several times and worried that, it being a Saturday, she would wind up trapped inside the washroom over the weekend.

She ultimately managed to wring her way out of the washroom, but, looking back on the experience during her testimony, said it "was without dignity."

What took so long?

Why did it take Portman's experience to prompt the assembly to install automatic door openers?

During his testimony, Tim Mercer, the clerk of the legislative assembly, cited a number of (pre-bathroom episode) reasons for the delay.

The wooden door to the disabled person's washroom, with automatic door opener. (Guy Quenneville/CBC )

He said the assembly wanted to make the change at the same time it installed a lock-down system, but that the latter initiative didn't receive support until after the October 2014 Parliament shooting in Ottawa.

Mercer also said the assembly hadn't received any complaints about people not being able to access the building since it opened in 1993.

McKee of the disabilities council says her organization has not received such complaints, either. But she's quick to add: "That doesn't mean, in any way, shape or form, that individuals had not experienced difficulty."

Assembly 'should not have waited'

Wright, the adjudicator, didn't buy the assembly's reasoning for the delay. 

"The [assembly] cannot use the apparent absence of previous complaints as a reason to not properly investigate concerns when raised," he wrote.

Wright added that when the N.W.T.'s Human Rights Act came into effect in 2004, the assembly should have taken a proactive look at whether the building posed any barriers to people with disabilities.  

"[The assembly] should not have waited for a complaint or, as it appears to have done here, determined one complaint was not sufficient to fully investigate whether the building was reasonably accessible to disabled persons," he wrote.

Seats now left in an open position for people with crutches, canes and walkers — another of Portman's suggestions. (Guy Quenneville/CBC )
McKee sees signs that Yellowknife is moving toward that kind of approach: early discussions about a City of Yellowknife trail system atop Twin Pine Hill have included talk of wheelchair access.   

The assembly has widened doors, added companion seating for people in wheelchairs, and made sure some seats in the public gallery remain open for those with crutches. It's also giving its staff "human rights and duty to accommodate training" starting next month.

"As the 'Place of the People,' the legislative assembly should be accessible to all residents of the Northwest Territories," according to the assembly's Tuesday press release.   

But Portman is not as hopeful: during her testimony last spring, she said she never wants to step foot inside the legislative assembly again.

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca