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Dog Guide Legislation Coast to Coast

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: During the 2001 NFB:AE Conference held in Vancouver, a workshop on existing dog guide legislation in Canada took place. This session was intended to examine existing legislation and to develop content for an ideal dog guide statute in preparation for anticipated consultations in Alberta and for use in other provinces and territories across Canada. Leading the discussion were Devon Wilkins, Editor of "The Harness", a magazine for people with all types of assistance dogs and Rob Sleath who is, among many other things, President of Advocates for Sight Impaired Consumers (ASIC). In this article, Devon Wilkins summarizes both presentations, beginning with her overview of the current status of legislation throughout Canada.

Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Ontario are the only provinces with a Blind Persons' Rights Act. Of those four, Nova Scotia was the only province that had the foresight to include other types of assistance dogs. Alberta amended its Act once to include hearing dogs.

Prince Edward Island has no Blind Persons' Rights Act. The eating establishments' regulation of its Public Health Act, however, provides exemptions for both guide dogs and other animals that assist people with disabilities.

New Brunswick, the Yukon, and Quebec have no Blind Persons' Rights Acts per se, but officials have stated that people with guide dogs would receive adequate protection from these provinces' Human Rights Codes.

The Northwest Territories had not enacted legislation to provide protection for people with guide dogs, but allowing them into public buildings was common practice.

Wilkins told the Conference that, if any other legislation is as narrow as Ontario's Blind Persons' Rights Act as it stands in 2001, then it doesn't go far enough. At present, the Blind Persons' Rights Act, originally enacted in 1980, prohibits anyone from barring a blind person with a guide dog from any accommodation, facility, service, or self-contained dwelling unit. It also makes it illegal for anyone to levy an extra charge against a blind person because of the presence of a guide dog.

As well as expanding protection to cover all types of assistance dogs, Wilkins recommended that future legislation should follow the lead of States such as New Mexico and Washington. Their laws now provide penalties of $ 5,000 fines and one year in jail for people who impede the progress of a person with a guide dog or allow their pet dogs to do so. Those who deliberately cause the injury or death of a guide dog are subject to fines of $ 10,000 and five years in prison. It is also illegal for animal rights activists to grab hold of a guide dog and turn it loose, as happened to one Seattle woman.

In a brief reference to municipalities, Wilkins suggested that people with disabilities should not be exempted from "poop and scoop" bylaws, because too many people without disabilities may be quick to take advantage of such bylaws.

Rob Sleath's address focused on the growing pains of the Guide Animal Act of British Columbia. He began by stating that, until 1990, British Columbia would have been grouped with those provinces that have Blind Persons' Rights Acts in place. But in the late 1980's, an official with the Pacific Assistance Dog Society (PADS), convinced the Premier of the day that changes to the existing legislation were necessary in order to include service dogs. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, there was no consultation between the law-makers and the people who would benefit from the legislation. "Right now, here in British Columbia," Sleath said, "we are working with a law that is not a particularly good piece of legislation. The Attorney-General's ministry recognizes that it is long overdue for a complete overhaul."

According to Sleath, it was in the mid 1990's when the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities (BCCPD) took on the overhaul as a pet project. Some of its board members were assigned to sit down with people from the Attorney-General's Ministry to make some of the necessary changes. But, at the 1996 National Dog Guide Conference, a representative of the committee made a presentation and it became quite obvious that there was some dissention, even within the committee itself, as to the direction that should be taken. In 1999, twenty-three stakeholder groups sat down to review a draft proposed by the Office of Disability Issues in Victoria.

"It was quite interesting to look at the dynamics of that consultation group," Sleath recalled, "because it included representatives from guide dog schools, the NFB:AE, the Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB), the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and even the BC SPCA. "After that first meeting," he continued, "most of those groups dropped out and it appeared that the true stakeholders in the Guide Animal Act issue boiled down to the organizations that were working with individuals who were blind, vision-impaired, or Deaf-blind. It was fortunate that we were all pretty much on the same page in terms of the changes we wanted.

Sleath went on to say that when everyone had been consulted and the first draft came back, the big concern was the use of such terms as guide animals, service animals, and hearing assistance animals. Stakeholders worried that the term "animal", which was not defined in the draft, could include anything from a guide horse to a trained pot-bellied pig.

"I think it should be a concern to all of us as guide and service dog users." Sleath said. "We are still, to this day, trying to get public acceptance of these highly trained animals to go into certain locations. If we haven't got the community completely embracing guide dogs yet, how are we possibly going to get them to embrace exotic animals? We eventually changed the draft legislation to include dogs, and dogs only. That may be a mistake, but right now, we feel that we're going down the right path."

He went on to say that prior to the provincial election in May of this year, there were still three areas of concern. The first was that assistance dogs didn't have the right of access in multi-family dwelling units. The second was that the legislation didn't make it mandatory that puppies in training get the same exemptions as trained assistance dogs. The third was that violations of the Guide Animal Act as it now stands are subject to fines of only $ 200.

Sleath told his audience that cab companies are quite open about the fact that a fine of $ 200 is "just a cost of doing business". Stakeholder groups insisted that this fine be raised to $ 5,000.

Sleath concluded by saying that the stakeholders feel quite confident that they have the support of the incoming Attorney-General, but that there are still two areas of concern. As the draft reads now, retired assistance dogs wouldn't have right of access to apartment buildings. The stakeholders compare a retired working dog to a parent who is all of a sudden a senior. The second concern is that the current draft legislation says that assistance dogs have access to hotels, motels, inns, and resorts, except when the owner is living on the property or when there are less than five rooms. The stakeholders argue that a lot of the smaller motels in BC are what Sleath called "mom and pop operations" and many more are bed-and-breakfasts. Sleath said that if these concerns can be addressed before the draft finds its way to the legislative council, the new Act should become law either in the upcoming sitting or the next.

Sleath and Wilkins agreed with a suggestion from the audience that if you want to avoid any nasty surprises, it is always a good idea to check out the legislation in the jurisdiction in which you plan to travel.

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