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April 30, 2017

Melancholy Illustrations

We may smile at these matters, but they are melancholy illustrations. - Howe

In 1974 someone built a thirteen story building and named it after Joseph Howe, whose 1834 libel trial took place in the Red Room right next door in the House of Assembly.  He was speaking out against government corruption.

The building is listed as being in "International Style". I visited it once to go to the Human Rights Commission and remember the ramp at the entrance as being an afterthought.

The Province had been leasing the building since 1984, with an option to buy, and as soon as it assumed ownership in 2012 it decided to sell the building and lease it back rather than spend $30+ million to rehabilitate it.

The building is now the Halifax home of the Justice Department.

In 2017, in the midst of efforts to rewrite the Accessibility Act, representatives of a community coalition met with Justice Department officials in their new digs. On a hunch, they looked for an accessible washroom but were unable to locate one.

In a CBC article, Jean LaRoche later reported

Nova Scotia's Department of Justice is rewriting the bill to enshrine the accessibility rights of people with disabilities, but couldn't hold a meeting recently at its own offices to discuss changes because the building it leases doesn't have an accessible washroom.
The provincial government sold the Joseph Howe Building on Hollis Street to Universal Realty six years ago for $14.9 million. At the time an internal engineering report estimated the structure needed $36 million worth of renovations and upgrades. Government employees had complained for years about leaks and poor air quality.
Universal Realty gutted, then upgraded the 13-story structure after signing a 10-year lease with the province to make it the new home for the Department of Justice.

Here is a 107 page document which is an example of the standard lease tender of the Department of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal. This particular tender is not for the Howe building, but is boilerplate containing multiple references to accessibility. Notably:

4.8.1. The lands, building, Premises, facilities (including washrooms and elevators) and services provided by the Landlord pursuant to the Agreement must be accessible to and safely usable by persons with disabilities and must comply with the current edition of the National Building Code of Canada and the Nova Scotia Building Code Regulations.”
4.9.1. Separate washrooms for men and women must be provided in accordance with the National Building Code and the Nova Scotia Building Code. Universal Barrier Free Toilet Room - Where constraints of existing conditions and available space warrant it, a standalone universal toilet room can be substituted. One toilet and one lavatory must be provided in a standalone room and there must be unobstructed turning circle of 59.06” x no dimension x 66.93” (1500mm x no dimension the Nova Scotia Building Code.

In these older high-rise buildings, washrooms are reliably located between the elevator shaft and stair wells. They are cramped and hard to modify. Thus the Universal Barrier Free Toilet Room provides a very good alternative.

This state of affairs is a guarantee that there are no employees of the Justice Department who require accessible washrooms. The lone wheelchair-using student at Dalhousie Law School could not attend an interview. This is discriminatory, illegal and might be the subject of a Human Rights Complaint. It certainly explains why the department has such a tin ear on disability issues - people like me are invisible and inaudible.

One excuse in circulation is that the Province thought the washrooms were accessible, but simply didn't know. How could they, since their policies discriminate against having any employees who need accessible washrooms and would notice the lack?

Coming at the time when the Accessibility Act is being proclaimed bears a special irony. The Act is meant to create standards. The TIR lease is a standard, yet it is conveniently ignored. How are we to believe that the standards made under the Accessibility Act will be observed?

This is not an isolated example. I can name a dozen examples where government promises accessibility, then fails to deliver. From transportation to public health and uneven enforcement of minimum wage legislation, government routinely treats people with disabilities as an inconvenience and ignores its own rules.

And of course, taxpayers pay the price. They pay for universities and a Law School way behind in educating people with disabilities. They support people with disabilities who can't find work. They forego their contribution to society. James McGregor Stewart would have to think twice about visiting the Justice Minister.

I like Justice Minister Whalen. I haven't met her, but she seems sincere. But she doesn't run just any old department. If you can't get justice from Justice, where do you turn?

This is the Province's Diversity Policy:

The Government of Nova Scotia is committed to being a workforce that is inclusive, culturally competent, free of discrimination, values diversity and is representative, at all levels, of the population it serves. To realize this commitment, government strives to promote diversity and foster respect and inclusion in its workplaces; identify and remove systemic barriers to employment facing members of under-represented groups and achieve a workforce, that, at all levels, represents the diversity of Nova Scotians.

This is a lie. There might as well be a sign on the Howe Building saying "Diversity given lip service only".

Here are the questions for Minister Whalen:

  • How did this happen? 
  • Who's responsible? 
  • How are you going to make it better? 

And how the responses should be framed:

  • A public accounting, providing statistics, naming names, identifying miscalculations and opportunities for improvement 
  • Discipline for those found to have willfully aided this injustice 
  • Accessibility Policy 
    • Affirmative Action for Justice Department Employees including 
      • School outreach 
      • Aggressive targets 
      • Explicit guidelines 
      • Reporting regime
And don't wait for the Accessibility Act.  Be the leader, be the change.

Gus Reed

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