Yellowknife and The Toilet Seat of Democracy

By Victor Schwartzman
May 5, 2014

There are seats. There is democracy. Today our subject is the seat of democracy. Specifically, the toilet seat of democracy.

Yellowknife, a city of about 20,000, is the centre of the Northwest Territories (NWT), a sort of large Canadian ‘province’ or American ‘state.’ Located in the north (well, everything in Canada is located to the north, but this is north of that), Yellowknife has a subarctic climate, is a major hub for mining operations, and is home to the NWT Legislature.

Unfortunately, there is not a very understanding attitude in Yellowknife politicians towards people who have disabilities. By ‘understanding’ I mean “obeying the law.’ An access situation in Yellowknife has highlighted the most basic problem when you leave home: what if you suddenly have to use a washroom?

Which brings us to the building which houses the NWT Legislature.

Toilet seats and democracy seem to go together. Both seem to involve sitting and waiting for something to happen. And the reality when you go into any Legislature is that, sooner or later, simply being with all those politicians, you’ll need relief.

And therein lies the problem in Yellowknife. None of the washrooms in the Legislature are completely accessible. Heavy doors creating an access barrier zealously guard them and other areas. Only the building’s front doors have power openers. After that, you’re left to your own devices, assuming you brought devices with you.

To reach the public bathrooms on the first floor, you first must go through glass doors that open out onto an elevator. The elevator itself has heavy doors which make it difficult for some people to use. Then you go through another set of doors to get to the washrooms. To reach the washroom stall door you cannot open because it is too heavy, first you must open the door to the washroom itself, which you also may not be able to do. Using a stall where you can open the door is problematic, given there are no lever hand grips or other accommodations.

Surely it is predictable needs will arise. It appears poorly thought through, denying a person relief in a building full of politicians.

There are also problems with the cafeteria and library doors. On the second floor, the visitors’ gallery has several access problems. You reach the gallery by using an elevator. Technically, therefore, the visitors’ gallery access problems are not be a problem for some people, as the elevator also has difficult doors to use.

Why so many heavy doors without relatively inexpensive power assists commonly available everywhere in Canada except Yellowknife? Maybe the politicians don’t want many people coming into the Legislature. Maybe it is part of programme to keep toilet paper costs down. As there has been no public explanation, one can only wildly speculate.

What requires no speculation is whether the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the government buildings in Yellowknife do not know about these access problems. Apart from working there and seeing it every day, at least one person told them. Two years ago. Over the past two years, nothing has been done to fix relatively minor access problems.

While one understands politicians reading laws which apply to them in a manner best described as ‘convenient’, surely someone somewhere in the Northwest Territories government knows what the law is. Is that not supposed to be someone’s job? Because there laws about this sort of thing.

The lack of access to washrooms in the Legislative building finally got at least one person pissed off (sorry, but at least I waited this long.) That person has recently filed a human rights complaint on the issue.

The funny thing is that a complaint is totally unnecessary. Human rights law on such things is profoundly established. The ‘seat of government’ is always supposed to be accessible. It’s a symbolic kind of thing, even if sitting down with the government never gets you anywhere. But everyone should be able to access the Legislature building and the floor of the assembly.

Cost in such cases is not an issue, especially in the Yellowknife situation. A government cannot argue installing automatic door openers is an undue hardship. The only undue hardship about the Yellowknife situation is that it exists.

Other issues make life difficult for people with disabilities in Yellowknife. But you have to start somewhere. So my advice to is that the NWT government should not let this situation bowl it over. Or sink it. Don’t let it get you pooped.

And, good advice for any politician, always wash your hands after!

Next: I Have No Idea

Victor Schwartzman contributes this weekly satiric column to Accessibility News nothing in these columns is true except what they are about. His graphic novel (where each chapter is one issue of a community newspaper) is serialized on the great Canadian lit site, http://www.redfez.net. He also contributes a monthly poetry review to http://www.targetaudiencemagazine.com. He has had poetry and short fiction published, and has edited novels. His email is vschwartzman@gmail.com.