Hantsport residents tell province to fix dam instead of raising road

As a washed-out dam in Hantsport, N.S., slowly changes the face of the land in the area, hundreds of residents turned out to a public meeting Wednesday evening to tell the province they are not satisfied with its handling of the matter. 

An old aboiteau or dam across the mouth of the Halfway River washed out late last year, and now water from the Bay of Fundy is able to travel upriver during each high tide. The tidal flow is bringing silt and saltwater to an area that has been farmland for decades.

Jane Davis, a resident of the area, said hundreds of people turned out for the standing-room-only meeting because they are concerned about the rapid change in the environment along the river. 

“Quite devastating when you come off the highway and you’re surrounded by green, and all of a sudden you’re straight onto dead trees,” she said. 

“As one property owner said, when people are coming into town and looking at properties in Hantsport this is the first thing they see. They’re wondering what is happening here, and why would I want to live here?” 

The remaining wooden structure of the Hantsport aboiteau is not restricting the movement of tidal water. (Steve Berry/CBC)

The province is locked in a legal dispute with the Windsor and Hantsport Railway, an American-owned company that once ran a railway over the top of the aboiteau. The railway has been defunct for roughly 10 years and the section of track that ran across the aboiteau has been removed. 

The province says it is the railway company’s responsibility to repair the aboiteau. The owner of the railway has disputed this in court, and the matter is ongoing. 

In addition to the changes to the land, residents say they are worried about the safety of the Highway 1 bridge, which crosses the Halfway River near its mouth. Highway 101 also crosses the river about two kilometres further upstream. 

At the public meeting, the deputy minister of transportation and infrastructure, Paul LaFleche, spoke with residents about possible solutions, including raising the Highway 1 roadbed.

“One of the things he said was, ‘OK, who wants to raise the road?'” Davis said. “And the whole room just shouted at him, ‘No. No, no, no. We don’t want you to raise the road. That won’t fix the issue.'”

Jane Davis lives in Hantsport and is a board member of the Hantsport Memorial Community Centre. (Steve Berry/CBC)

The minister of transportation and infrastructure, Lloyd Hines, said Thursday the province is monitoring the situation but so far engineers have not found any change around the bridges. 

“We’re monitoring it constantly to make sure there’s integrity in the infrastructure, to make sure that it’s functional in the area. We will take whatever measures are required to ensure that there’s safety for the community,” he said. “If there was erosion of the highway, obviously that would be a concern for us.” 

Hines said his department is not sure of the extent of the environmental change, but intends to “protect those values first, and to sort the other things out later.” 

However, Hines said he is not sure at this point how the province will mitigate the environmental changes to the land. 

Graham Day, who formerly was legal counsel for Canadian Pacific Ltd. and has had a home in Hantsport for more than 40 years, said he has never seen so many citizens turn out for a public meeting.

“The bottom line is the government has not done much — if anything,” he said.

“The railway itself will never operate again, short of spending many millions and millions of dollars. The line is deteriorated. There’s other areas of damage. But they have not impacted the environment the way the aboiteau has.”

The transportation minister said repairing or replacing the aboiteau is an option, but that will depend on the outcome of the court case. 

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SPCA investigating after cat survives bullet through head

If the bullet had been a couple of millimetres in either direction, Vox would never have lived to come home. 

Sometime between Sunday morning and Monday evening, the nearly two-year-old cat was roaming near his owners’ home in New Cornwall, north of Mahone Bay, N.S., when someone shot him in the back of the head at a range close enough to singe his skin. 

“I was appalled that anybody would do that,” Vox’s owner Angela Dauphinee said on Friday. “I don’t know who would think of it in the first place.”

Amazingly, the bullet passed right through Vox’s head and the Dauphinees found him on their back doorstep late Monday. They could see he had injuries to his head, particularly around the left eye, but didn’t notice blood or large wounds.

Angela Dauphinee and her daughter pet Vox in their home Friday. Vox is frightened to be alone so the Dauphinees have been sleeping near him each night. (CBC)

However, after veterinarian Beverly Greenlaw X-rayed the cat, it became clear Vox had extensive internal injuries. 

“When I went into the X-ray room and I saw it, my heart just sunk. I just thought, ‘I can’t believe somebody would do this,'” she said.  

The X-ray revealed the path of the bullet and fragments of bullet still inside Vox’s head.

Greenlaw doesn’t believe the cat was shot with a pellet or BB gun. She said it is more likely the bullet came from a gun that would be used to hunt an animal the size of a coyote. 

“With animals you’ve got a lot of fur involved so you don’t really get to appreciate how devastating the wounds are until you start to clip all the hair away,” Greenlaw said.

“There was shards of bone and tissue scattered throughout the mouth and a portion of the upper and lower left jaw was basically missing.”

Vox was lucky to have survived a bullet through the head. (CBC)

The bullet entered in the rear left side of Vox’s head and exited beside his left eye. Vox will be permanently deaf in his left ear and may lose the sight of his left eye. His jaw may be permanently misaligned and he will likely have to eat soft food for the rest of his life. 

Dauphinee says Vox has always been the most cuddly and loving of her family’s five cats. Although they are horrified that someone attacked their cat, her family is thankful his injuries were not worse. 

“They say cats have nine lives, so my husband and I said he’s probably down to six, because that was a big one,” she said. “But he’s coming around slowly but surely.

“I am really hoping that it just doesn’t happen to anyone ever again. It’s our pet, he’s part of the family. Just like anyone else who has pets. Maybe people will think twice.” 

Beverly Greenlaw is a veterinarian at Oakland Veterinary Hospital. (Shaina Luck)

Greenlaw says her clinic sees one or two cases of gunshot wounds in animals each year. Sometimes owners don’t even know their animal has been shot.

“This kind of action is purely malicious,” she said. “It’s not something you could say was in any way an accident. Somebody actually had to go get a gun, load a gun, aim the gun [and] pull the trigger on this poor little animal,” she said. 

The SPCA is investigating the matter, which it says is an offence under the Animal Protection Act and the Criminal Code. 

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Immigration strategy may be overlooking foreign childhood educators already here

As the provincial government prepares to invite 180 international early childhood educators to Nova Scotia, some with knowledge of the industry worry there are newly trained workers already in the province being left out. 

Daycare centres have long said there is a shortage of qualified workers, stemming  from the relatively low rates of pay in the industry. With the province’s expansion of pre-primary, the problem has become acute. 

Some worry the new provincial immigration stream announced Thursday won’t solve the problem.

Halifax immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak said the program announced yesterday may help some, but in her view, not the people it needs to reach.

 

Halifax immigration lawyer Elizabeth Wozniak says foreign students already trained and living here are being overlooked in the province’s new strategy. (CBC)

“The government should be targeting those people who are already here, on the ground,” she said. “I think that Nova Scotia needs people who are going to want to stay here, who are demonstrating an intent to remain in Nova Scotia.”

Wozniak said there’s a pool of foreign early childhood education students already in Nova Scotia who are training or who have recently graduated. Some won’t qualify to stay because of a bureaucratic policy blunder. 

In previous years, many private colleges in Canada told students they could get a work permit after graduation from the federal government. The federal government did issue these permits, however it later stopped doing so. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada officials said the work permits had been issued in error. 

Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Educators was one of the private colleges that attracted students who hoped to graduate and receive a work permit. In 2017 approximately 50 students at the college discovered their diploma did not qualify them for the permit

Nova Scotia Immigration Minister Lena Diab at University Children’s Centre in Halifax on Thursday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Students like Anna-Kay Clarke were left unable to work, having just spent thousands for a diploma they couldn’t use. But Clarke says many of her fellow students have a desire to settle and work in Halifax childcare facilities. 

“We are already here, and we know we want to be here. We have families here,” she said. “I think there is a need to help those who are here now.”

“There are many students here who would still need some help, or if the process could go a bit quicker so we could get settled here,” she said.  “I mean I already call Nova Scotia, Halifax, my home. So to be able to make it permanent.”

Clarke was eventually able to find work at a childcare facility in Halifax that assisted her with the paperwork to get a one-year work permit. 

Small claims decision 

Clarke said many of the early childhood education students left the country or gave up the profession. However she chose to try to recoup some of the tuition money she spent. She says her former school told her she would qualify for a work permit, which turned out to be untrue.

 

Anna-Kay Clarke went to small claims court to recoup money she spent on her college training after she found out she was not eligible for a job due to a federal government policy blunder. (Shaina Luck)

“I thought long and hard about it, and I believe the school had to be held accountable,” she said.  

Clarke took the Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Educators to small claims court, and was awarded the maximum possible amount of $25,000 in May. Her sister, who was in a similar circumstance, was awarded $10,000. 

The small claims court adjudicator found the school “knew, or ought to have known” that its students would not qualify for a work permit, and that it “misled” the students. 

Clarke said being able to recover the tuition money that she paid has helped her move forward with the process of getting her permanent residency, which can cost thousands of dollars and is taking her roughly 19 months. She hopes to one day complete her master’s degree in social work.

The provincial government says it is preparing to invite 180 international early childhood educators to Nova Scotia because of a shortage of trained workers. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“It just helps us to be able now, with the shorter timeline that we have, to have the financial resources to be able to pay to get settled here as permanent residents,” she said.  

In a statement, the college board chair Shawn Tracey said, “We sincerely hope the new stream will provide the needed avenue for recent graduates to remain in the province since the federal government changed the way it applies the criteria for the post-graduate work permit in 2017.”

Tracey did not comment on the Clarkes’ small claims suit, but added that some of the school’s graduates have left the province, and “lost the opportunity to add to Nova Scotia’s economy and future.”

Pre-primary students are shown painting. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia

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Anti-poverty advocates hail court decision ordering more housing assistance

The provincial Community Services Department can exceed regulated income assistance amounts in the case of a Halifax woman who needs to pay for an apartment that doesn’t compromise her health, Nova Scotia’s top court has ruled. 

The ruling, which overturned an earlier court decision, directs the Department of Community Services to exceed the amount of funding for housing contained in its regulations when a person’s health and safety require it.

Anti-poverty advocates are thrilled with the decision.

“We are very pleased with this decision. We think it could really help people in this province,” said Fiona Traynor, a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid. “We’re hopeful.”  

The case revolves around a woman who the court ruled can only be identified as G.R. She lives in Halifax on income assistance from the Department of Community Services. 

Chemical sensitivity 

G.R. has a health condition that makes her seriously ill if she breathes in or comes into contact with chemicals commonly found in many older apartment buildings. Some examples of those chemicals are found in paint, cigarette smoke and carpeting. 

In November 2015, G.R. began to receive a shelter allowance of $535 from the department as well as a personal allowance of $275.

In early 2016, she was able to find an apartment that did not make her ill, but it cost $850 per month. G.R. applied for extra assistance to be able to keep the apartment, and was initially denied. 

“The department made the decision based on their shelter rates that there’s the limit and that’s it, and they weren’t willing to go above that,” said Traynor, who helped G.R. during the legal battle which followed. 

G.R. and Dalhousie Legal Aid appealed that decision to the Assistance Appeal Board, which granted G.R. the $850-per month funding. The department countered by taking G.R. to the Supreme Court, which quashed the decision. 

Finally, G.R. appealed to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, which issued its decision in G.R.’s favour on Friday. 

Homeless for many months

“For her personally, it just means that she can keep her home. She was homeless for many, many months before she was able to find appropriate housing,” said Claire McNeil, G.R.’s lawyer.

G.R. was forced to live in her car for some time before finding a home that didn’t make her ill.

“Those times are kind of haunting for her, and that was kind of looming over her head these last months while she waited for this decision,” McNeil said.

McNeil noted the shelter allowance of up to $535 for a single person hasn’t changed since 2001.

That is inadequate for reasonable housing, she and Traynor say.

“I am mindful that the [Department of Community Services] has budgetary concerns and that social assistance funding is not unlimited,” wrote Justice Elizabeth Van den Eynden in a unanimous decision from a panel that included two other judges. 

Van den Eynden accepted the argument that additional assistance could be given when there is “a major health concern and a long-term risk to health.” 

Over the limits

Traynor said this decision sends a message to the Department of Community Services. 

“What it says is that the department can override the limits, the regulatory limits,” Traynor said. 

“Not for everybody, and not unlimited. But when a person’s health or safety is in jeopardy, then the department now has been told by the Court of Appeal that they can increase people’s allowances under this program. So it’s an important decision.” 

McNeil said the department has an obligation to answer to the ruling of the court, but that she does have concerns about how quickly it will do so. 

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Province quickly reverses course on children's dental cleanings

The Nova Scotia government has quickly reversed a decision earlier this month that removed a type of dental cleaning coverage from thousands of families with young children. 

On July 12, the Department of Health and Wellness sent out an update to dentists saying it was immediately removing MSI coverage for “minor scaling” for children under the age of 15.

Scaling is done to scrape off plaque and tartar containing bacteria that is harmful to gums. 

Premier Stephen McNeil said Thursday he was unaware of the update on scaling until that morning. He blamed bureaucrats and said the decision will be reversed.

“They were attempting to make a clarification on a policy, that if you look across the country no other place was covering this as well. But that’s not their decision. That’s a decision for government, and that’s a decision that comes to my table,” he said.

“What was covered yesterday, what we paid for yesterday, will be paid for tomorrow.”

Dental association directive

The reversal came just two days after the Nova Scotia Dental Association issued a directive to dentists telling them the cleanings would no longer be covered.

As of noon on Thursday, the association had not been contacted by the government about the reversal, according to executive director Steve Jennex.

In a message posted Wednesday on its website, the association called scaling “an important part of preventing dental disease.” 

“Dental plans do not always include coverage for sufficient scaling, and sometimes do not include any scaling at all,” the association noted in its release.

Recommended changes

A 2015 report to the health minister by the Oral Health Advisory Group, which included the provincial dental association, recommended some changes to scaling. It stated that scaling is typically not required for children under 10, but a majority of children 10 and older do need it.

For that reason, the report recommended that children under 10 not be covered, but children over 10 should receive one unit of scaling each year, at an estimated total cost of $237,336, or approximately $30 per visit. 

Using 2013-2014 numbers, the advisory group calculated that 16,058 children aged 10 to 15 used the province’s oral health program that year. It estimated about 12,846 of them needed scaling and roughly half of those children had no dental insurance at all. 

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Girl, 4, sent to hospital after eating marijuana chocolate bar

Halifax RCMP are investigating whether any charges should be laid after a four-year-old girl was sent to hospital by a marijuana edible.

Police began the investigation after the girl, who is from East Petpeswick on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, ate what she thought was a regular chocolate bar Saturday.

“On Saturday afternoon, as we understand it, a gentleman was having his kids helping him to clean out his vehicle,” said Cpl. Jennifer Clarke. 

“There were three young children, the four-year-old being the youngest. And I understand the four-year-old found what she thought was just a chocolate bar in the console of the vehicle. She ate 15 squares of the chocolate bar. Now the chocolate bar turned out to be an edible marijuana product.”

The recommended dose of the edible was one square per day for an adult.

Cpl. Jennifer Clarke is a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP. (CBC)

The girl was treated and released from hospital. The RCMP said the chocolate bar appeared to be commercially packaged, not homemade. 

“We do know that some edibles do look very, very tempting and look a lot like a regular candy or treat that a person might see,” Clarke said.

The RCMP are reminding people that recreational marijuana is still illegal to possess and that even after legalization on Oct. 17, it will still be illegal to sell edibles. People who do possess edibles should keep them locked up away from children.

Clarke said it’s difficult to predict whether there will be more cases of children accidentally ingesting cannabis following legalization. Some in the industry have said they expect the demand for edibles will spike after Oct. 17.

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'Hometown hero' helps bring international Down syndrome swim event to Truro

Truro, N.S., is bustling with athletes and their families from around the world this week, as it plays host to the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships. 

It’s the first time the international competition has ever been held in Canada and organizers credit the family of a local swimmer for helping bring the event to the town. 

Matthew Hunter, 30, has been swimming for more than 20 years, including as a member of the Special Olympics and other swim teams. He has Down syndrome and has travelled to six other world swimming championships in past years, but this time is unique.  

Jol Hunter suggested Truro bid to host the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships. (CBC)

“This is [my] hometown facility here,” he explained following his 800-metre race Sunday.

Hunter has competed in Los Angeles, Athens, Mexico and twice in Italy. He has overcome many struggles as a competitive swimmer and enjoys the challenge of the sport. 

“We have built motivation; we have goals,” he said. 

His father, Jol Hunter, was the first to suggest the idea of bringing the championships to the Rath Eastlink Community Centre, more than two years ago. 

“This community has nurtured [Matthew] for 30 years, and this is his gift back. If he wasn’t here, the championships wouldn’t be here,” he said.

A swimmer from Brazil displays his colours proudly. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Jol Hunter said the championships have the power to inspire others and show what’s possible. The 250 athletes have “trained as hard as any athletes in any sport for a world championship,” he said. 

“You can see how fit and strong they are, and hopefully that shows folks what the possibilities are, and helps motivate other people,” he said. 

“Sometimes, whether it’s Down syndrome or anything else, we sometimes underestimate people’s capabilities. With a little support and a little encouragement and a little bit of determination, we can achieve all sorts of things.” 

2 years of planning for event

Nick Sharpe, a co-chair of the local organizing committee, said it took about two years of hard work and the efforts of many volunteers to bring the event to Truro. Many in the community pitched in out of affection for Matthew Hunter. 

“It’s a really big deal,” Sharpe said. “I’m just looking forward to watching Matthew swim his events. A lot of people are rallying behind him. He’s the hometown hero, and I want to see him do really well.”  

Local hotels and restaurants are doing a brisk business supporting approximately 1,000 athletes, coaches, and family members who have travelled to the area for the competition.

Six charter buses are carrying athletes around town and to recreational events around Colchester County. 

A swimmer competes in the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships in Truro, Jul. 22, 2018. (Shaina Luck)

“We haven’t hosted an event of this magnitude in Truro,” said Tanya Colburne, the other co-chair of local organizing committee. “We’ve had massive events, no question, but this one has more people than we’ve seen.” 

Colburne said she also likes seeing athletes and their families exploring the town. 

“It creates a vibe, and it’s pretty special. Our community is benefiting in every way, and I can only hope the same is true for these folks, that the experience has been a good one,” she said.  

The championships continue until Thursday, Jul. 26.

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Halifax Pride parade adds low sensory zone and described viewing area

For the marquee event of the Halifax Pride festival, organizers are trying out some new accessibility measures to ensure everyone has a good time. 

During this year’s Pride parade on Saturday, there will be a “described viewing area” for people with visual impairments and a “low sensory zone” for people who find the noise and crowds overwhelming. 

Thousands of people turn out each year for the Halifax Pride parade. (CBC)

In past years the festival has had a viewing platform in front of the Halifax Central Library for those in wheelchairs or with mobility issues. That platform will still be present and the two new accessible areas will be placed in other spots along the route. 

The “low sensory zone” is inside the library, in the creative lab on the second floor. People with autism or who have anxiety about being in crowds will be able to watch the parade in a tranquil space behind the glass walls. 

“They’ll still hear the music and they’ll get to see everything, but it’s going to be kind of muted out for them,” said Beverley Nickerson, a member of the Halifax Pride accessibility committee.

Beverley Nickerson was inspired to suggest a low sensory zone by her teenage son. (CBC)

Nickerson suggested the space because of her 16-year-old son, who has autism. 

“We go every year. He loves parades, he loves the colours, the music and the dancing. But sometimes when we’re down there, the crowds are a little overwhelming for him,” she said. 

“During the parade, there’s a lot of people moving, coming around. Some of the floats are a little bit loud with the music. He loves music, but some of them he just found it a little too much and the hands would go up and cover his ears.” 

The described viewing area will be at the start of the parade route near the intersection of Upper Water and Cornwallis streets, where a master of ceremonies with a loudspeaker will describe each float as it passes. 

Mary Kathryn Arnold has a visual impairment and relies on her guide dog, Texas. She is on the accessibility committee and enjoys going to the Pride parade, but can only distinguish shapes and colours without details. 

Mary Kathryn Arnold is excited about the described viewing area at the 2018 Halifax Pride parade. (CBC)

“I only experience it by sitting on the hill with my wife and seeing colour and motion as it goes by and hearing party music. Without my wife telling me what’s going on in the parade, it would be a very frustrating experience,” she said. 

Arnold suggested the described viewing area and says she hopes many people come to experience it together. 

“Sighted people might think that we could just enjoy the music and the atmosphere, because Pride does have a wonderful atmosphere. And that’s why almost all of us come out to it,” she said. 

“But we want to do more than just enjoy the atmosphere or see the colours or, depending on how blind you are, just hear the music. We want to have the same accessibility to the event as everyone else.” 

For those who can’t make it to the event, CBC will livestream the entire parade starting at 1p.m. on Saturday, July 21, at cbc.ca/ns. It will also be live on the CBC Nova Scotia Facebook page.

Rouge Fatale and Steve Berry are excited to be your hosts for the 2018 Halifax Pride parade CBC livestream on Saturday, July 21. (Robert Short / CBC)

The parade leaves the DND dockyards heading to Upper Water Street, turns onto Barrington Street, up Spring Garden Road and then turns onto South Park Street to the Garrison Grounds for the community festival.

This is the route the Halifax Pride parade will follow Saturday. (Halifax Pride)

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Abdoul Abdi no longer facing deportation hearing, for now

Former child refugee Abdoul Abdi is no longer facing deportation to Somalia, but the threat of deportation in the future remains a possibility.

Abdi, 25, lives and works in Toronto, but came to Nova Scotia in 2000 from Somalia with his aunts and sister after his mother died in a refugee camp in Djibouti. Abdi was placed in the custody of the Department of Community Services in 2001. His family never regained custody of Abdi and he was placed in 31 different foster homes and group homes.

While in Nova Scotia, Abdi began to show behavioural problems and got in trouble with the law as a youth and as an adult. In 2014, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and assaulting a police officer and served time in prison before being released. That sentence triggered a deportation hearing.

Abdi and his supporters argued to a Federal Court judge that the Canadian and Nova Scotian governments failed him during his years in the child welfare system, and that he should not face a deportation hearing. 

They feared the hearing would inevitably lead to his deportation to Somalia, where he has no connections and does not speak the language.

Supporters for Abdoul Abdi showed up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s town hall on Jan. 9, 2018, in Lower Sackville, N.S. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

In a decision filed July 13, Justice Ann Marie McDonald said the official who acted as a “minister’s delegate” for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness did not consider the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in sending Abdi to a deportation hearing.

McDonald set aside the decision to send Abdi to a hearing, and ordered the matter to be re-determined by a different minister’s delegate.

In her decision, McDonald wrote that the minister’s delegate had not considered the “particular and unique facts” of Abdi’s case, “including the fact that he was a long-term ward of the state.”

Abdoul Abdi came to Canada as a refugee from Somalia in 2000. (Submitted by Benjamin Perryman)

McDonald noted Abdi’s family unsuccessfully attempted to apply for citizenship for him, but was stopped by the Department of Community Services. The department did not apply for citizenship on his behalf.

The decision to send Abdi to a deportation hearing is not “justified, transparent, and intelligible,” McDonald wrote, adding that it did not consider the charter or international laws to which Canada is signatory.

The judge’s decision means that while Abdi is not facing deportation at the moment, he and his lawyer Benjamin Perryman are uncertain what the minister of public safety’s next steps will be.

This is the second time Abdi has faced deportation. In 2016, an admissibility hearing was ordered for Abdi. That decision was overturned by the Federal Court of Canada on the grounds that it relied on court records that were protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

‘Do the right thing,’ says Abdi’s lawyer

“My hope is that Mr. Abdi should not have to go to court a third time for this government to do the right thing,” Perryman told CBC’s Maritime Noon.

“It is my hope that we will see ministerial leadership to end the proceedings against Mr. Abdi, and also to ensure that all children in state care become citizens. But I can’t speak for the government.

“I can only say that the court has twice now overturned the government’s decision as unreasonable and instructed the government to do a better job on the next time around.”

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Wheelchair users recount ordeal of getting restaurant bathroom complaint heard

A human rights hearing into the way the province enforces the rules around accessible washrooms and food safety has concluded in Halifax, leaving wheelchair users watching closely for a ruling in the case.

Wheelchair users Gus Reed, Ben Marston, Paul Vienneau, Jeremy MacDonald and Kelly McKenna made a complaint to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 2016 that inaccessible restaurant washrooms put their health and public health at risk.

Their lawyer, David Fraser, said in his closing arguments Friday that food safety regulations state washrooms must be available to the public, but currently this regulation is enforced with the “average” able-bodied person in mind. The complainants say this prevents them from taking normal sanitary measures like washing their hands before eating.

Halifax lawyer David Fraser represents the complainants in the case and is arguing that not having an accessible washroom presents a health risk. (Robert Short/CBC)

The government’s lawyer, Kevin Kindred, argued that the complainants are mixing up food safety and accessibility, and that changing the way the regulations are enforced could result in restaurants losing their licenses and closing.

He added that washrooms are not the only places that are inaccessible in some restaurants.

Kindred said the complaint could result those restaurants being forced to build accessible washrooms, without making the front door accessible, which he characterized as an “absurdity.”

Board chair Gail Gatchalian expects to render a decision before the end of summer. 

Long wait for hearing

The complainants’ lawyer reminded the hearing they have been waiting a long time for these issues to be heard.

Lead complainant Gus Reed’s case was rejected twice by different Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) intake officers. The complainants then went to Nova Scotia Supreme Court to have a judge determine whether their case deserved to be heard.

In a March 2017 decision, Justice Frank Edwards ruled that the commission had to hear Reed’s case, and that it does not have the authority to refuse to accept a complaint.

The decision examined the intake process for complaints at the human rights commission. It is a two-step process which distinguishes between “inquiries” and complaints which the commission is actively investigating.  

The five complainants take issue with the way the government enforces rules around restaurant bathrooms. (Shutterstock)

“Inquiries are essentially any contact received by the Commission by phone, email or visit. Often these contacts are not related in any way to human rights in which case the individual is referred to the correct government agency or outside organization that can assist them,” explained Jeff Overmars, the commission’s manager of communications, in an email.

Once a human rights commission officer has determined that the “inquiry” is a matter for investigation under the human rights act, it is re-classified as a “complaint” and investigated.

“The threshold for proceeding to this step is low,” Overmars wrote, explaining if the inquiry doesn’t proceed, it is usually because the individual decided not to go further, couldn’t provide the necessary information or the issue isn’t within the jurisdiction of the commission.

However, that’s not what happened in Gus Reed’s case.

“I think having to take the human rights commission to court in order to hear this is pretty unacceptable,” said Reed before the proceedings Thursday. “I think it is most assuredly a case of discrimination. I think they should have paid attention at the very beginning.” 

Gail Gatchalian is chairing the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission inquiry and expects to release her decision before the end of the summer. (Robert Short/CBC)

Reed said he thought the process to lodge a human rights complaint would be difficult, time-consuming and daunting to many.

The commission’s lawyer argued in court that if every inquiry was treated as a complaint, the commission would be “overwhelmed.” Edwards responded that he was “not impressed” with that argument and said the commission had provided no statistics to back its case.

CBC asked the commission to provide statistics showing how cases were resolved.

The statistics showed it received between 1,998 and 2,588 inquiries per year, over the last five years. 

During that period of time, the average number of inquiries that proceeded to the complaint/investigation stage was 4.9 per cent, or between 98 and 147 cases a year. 

The commission did not break down the nature of the inquiries that don’t proceed to the complaint stage, but said they could include things such as employers seeking advice on accommodating an employee with a disability or people who want advice from the commission on their circumstances.

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia 

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