Lack of progress on human rights order frustrates accessibility activist
Gus Reed says government taking too long to update and enforce food safety rules
Gus Reed got tired of waiting.
Reed was part of a group successful in a human rights challenge against the Nova Scotia government, arguing he and other wheelchair users could not wash their hands in many restaurants where accessible washrooms are not available. A board of inquiry found the government was not enforcing its own food safety regulations.
That was in September 2018. Almost a year later, Reed said things haven't played out the way he'd hoped and aren't going nearly fast enough.
"Essentially, I thought that it was sort of over, that we won and now it's time for [the government] to do their thing," he said.
In January, Reed and the others received a proposal to go through a restorative justice approach to the matter. He was sceptical of the idea, unsure if it was appropriate, but went along because others wanted to give it a chance.
'It requires action'
In June he left the process after several meetings, deciding he'd heard enough.
"I got a sense from that that everybody was deeply concerned and perfectly nice, but they weren't the people who were going to be able to do stuff. It requires a minister or deputy minister or policy leader to say, 'Just go off and do this,'" he said.
"It doesn't require, for me anyway, somebody to be concerned and apologetic and understanding. It requires action."
A Justice Department spokesperson said a working group would be established this fall to develop a standard for accessible washrooms. Regulations would follow.
There are about 6,000 eating establishments in the province, although officials don't know how many of those have accessible washrooms. In late 2017, the government launched a grant program businesses could access to make their locations accessible.
Waiting for regulations
Initially, 16 projects were funded to a total of $900,000. In 2018-19, more than $1 million was granted to 41 businesses and there again is $1 million available for 2019-20. But Reed still sees plenty of establishments where he can't wash his hands and is frustrated the government isn't compelled to ensure businesses follow food safety rules.
"I don't think I'm so much of a literalist that I would believe that the government always does the right thing, but I think in this case they should be doing the right thing," he said. "It's a health issue, not a money issue."
A spokesperson for the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia said that although some businesses have accessed the government program to make changes to existing sites, many more are waiting for the regulations to be finalized to ensure they know all the steps that will be required.
While Reed has left the restorative justice process, other participants remain.
Paul Vienneau, who said there is an agreement as part of the process that participants won't discuss it until it's complete, said he decided it is important to see it through.
"What we're doing is restoring the relationship between the injured group, which is us, and the government and the departments involved," he said.
Vienneau said the process wasn't designed to happen quickly, and so he'll see it through in hopes of having input in how regulations will be enforced, establishing a relationship with the restaurant industry and perhaps even changing the way the government deals with groups looking to have their rights acknowledged.
"At this point I don't know if this is going to work yet, but what I do know is this won't have a chance to work if I don't just submit to the process," he said.
'Keep up the pressure'
Vienneau's view is that while part of this process is indeed about the group getting what the human rights commission said they are entitled to, "which is actually a [United Nations] health human right," it's also about changing the way things like this work in the future.
"Systems are the ones that are rigged against people, but there are people working inside there and those are the people we can influence," he said.
Reed worries the government is simply trying to wait them out, but he doesn't plan to go away.
"I'm persistent. Others are at least as persistent. So I'm confident that we can keep up the pressure. I don't quite know when to expect anything, but, you know, the more nothing happens, the more shame on them," he said.