Advocates, industry await plan to make N.S. restaurant washrooms accessible
Working group collected ideas, concerns in series of meetings last fall
The restaurant industry and accessibility advocates alike are hoping to hear back from the Nova Scotia government in the next few months on a plan to make every restaurant washroom in the province accessible, a process that's expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Late last year, a working group wrapped up a series of Justice Department meetings designed to gather input on the issue, said Gordon Stewart, the executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia.
"There were wheelchair people, accessibility people, government people, the code people, building inspectors, fire inspectors. It was quite a range of people in there. And I don't think many of us had ever gone through this process before," Stewart said.
The meetings followed a restorative justice approach.
"It's a process that allows you to kind of break down all the barriers, so you don't have these walls," Stewart said. "It was very worthwhile and I would say in the end that I grew actually to like the process."
Human rights decision
In September 2018, a human rights board of inquiry chair ruled that Nova Scotia discriminated against wheelchair users by not enforcing a regulation requiring restaurants to have accessible washrooms.
A group of five Halifax wheelchair users brought the challenge to the board, arguing that not being able to use washrooms is a health and safety risk. They said being unable to wash their hands before eating is dangerous to their own health and a public health concern.
After that board of inquiry decision, the province said in January 2019 that it would use the restorative justice approach to plan the way forward.
Accessibility advocate Paul Vienneau, who uses a wheelchair, said the working group submitted its work to the government in the last week before Christmas.
"From day one, I wanted it known that I wasn't looking to shut down restaurants that are unable to comply. This was not about shutting people down or putting people out of work, it was about the government following through on what they were told, which is make this right " Vienneau said.
"And so luckily with the restorative justice, we got to work alongside the people, somebody from the fire marshal's office, restaurant industry, heritage, all these people that were pretty freaked out about the fact we prevailed on this.
"So the government is going to have to enforce their regulation, which is handwashing in washrooms have to be convenient for patrons and staff."
Stewart said restaurant owners are concerned about how changes will be rolled out, especially small restaurants, those in historic buildings and those which have to convince landlords to agree to renovations. Some restaurants are concerned they will need to remove tables to make space, which means a loss of revenue.
Stewart hopes to hear more from the province by early spring. He anticipates the Nova Scotia building code will be changed and every washroom will need to be inspected. He said communicating those steps to his association members is a top priority.
"We didn't want it that anyone could be kind of harmed by the change in legislation. We want to make sure that whatever came down in the final regulations will be flexible enough to accommodate all the needs of everyone overall," he said.
Cost to redo industry
The restaurant association will be looking to the province for support programs where renovations are required.
"It's a huge build. We think somewhere in the order of $25 to $30 million it will cost to redo the industry, and it won't get done right away," Stewart said.
He estimated it could take longer than five years to complete the renovations.
The Justice Department declined an interview, but said in a statement the government is committed to an accessible Nova Scotia and supports the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission decision on accessible washrooms in restaurants.
"We expect to be able to announce next steps in the near future," the statement said.