Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Justifying discrimination because of ignorance of the law

It’s an unpleasant feeling when you experience discrimination because you use a service dog, you complain, and a government employee responds by justifying the actions of the person who discriminated against you.

A black Labernese dog, standing and looking at the camera with a cheeky look.
My friendly and obedient service dog at home, not wearing his vest.

We recently booked a stay at a bed and breakfast in New Brunswick. We were nearly refused service because the owner has, she said, a “strict no pet policy”. I was travelling with my service dog. Service dogs aren’t pets.

Arrival

On arrival, the owner came to greet me and check me in. She saw my dog and told me that they had a “strict no pet policy”, and that we couldn’t stay there. I explained that my dog is a service dog, not a pet. That he helps me with several tasks related to my impairment. She continued on, stating that we hadn’t phoned ahead to say we were travelling with a dog and we’d have avoided a lot of heartache had we done so because she could have told us they don’t accept pets. I repeated that he was not a pet. I had to explain this repeatedly.

She also said that years ago, they’d let someone with a small dog stay and they had to clean the entire room from top to bottom because the dog had left hair in the bed, on the furniture, and “everywhere”. I explained that I travel with a bed for my dog and that he stays on his bed unless I need him to help me. I promised she could not see a trace of the dog when we left.

She was unwilling to accept us. I pointed out that all the rooms in surrounding hotels, motels, and B&B were fully booked due to high demand. If she didn’t accept us, we’d be left with nowhere to go. After nearly half an hour of discussion, she grudgingly agreed to let us stay.

Things got better, we thought

We stayed two nights.

The second evening, I asked the owner for a cup of tea, and she was quite chatty and pleasant. I thought all concerns she had about my service dog had been settled.

Departure

We thanked the owner for the stay as we left the following day. We chatted a few minutes. We told her again how great her B&B is and how we enjoyed the stay. We didn’t mention that our arrival had been very stressful and unpleasant due to the owner’s reaction to my service dog.

The owner stated that she couldn’t find a trace of the dog in the room when she inspected it the previous day. But despite that, she’d have to do a “deep clean of the room”, and of “all the places the dog has been”. I left to go to the car while my wife and the owner continued to talk for a few minutes.

My wife told her that we’d love to come back in the future. The owner said that she was very sorry, because we were “nice people”, but that we would not be welcome again because of the dog. She added that she was going to have to edit her website from a “no pets” policy to a “no animals” policy.

This last interaction completely soured our stay. It made a pleasant weekend, despite the bumpy start, unpleasant. We felt that all the relaxation we had been able to get had been ruined.

Discrimination is illegal

It is illegal in New Brunswick to discriminate against people on the basis of disability, including having a service dog to compensate for that disability. While we were not denied service that weekend, it came very close. We were not made to feel welcome. And we were specifically told that we could not come back.

Complaint

The B&B displays affiliation with 5 tourism associations or programs on their website. I contacted each of these associations to explain what had happened, and asking what they do to educate member organizations about anti-discrimination legislation, as well as how they handle complaints.

Unacceptable response

One of these programs is run by the government of New Brunswick. The response I got from an employee of the NB government really took me aback. She said:

In [the owner’s] defence and to your point, she obviously is not aware of her legal obligation and did not make an informed distinction between pet and service dog.

Obviously, the owner is not aware of her obligations. This is why I have not lodged a formal complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission. This is a case where education is more important than punishment. I took the time to reach out to these tourism associations and programs because they are best placed to reach out to ALL their affiliated members and provide education.

This NB staffer’s response was adding insult to injury. Post hoc justification for discrimination on the basis of ignorance of the law. By a government employee, no less. I once got a traffic fine for making a left turn where it was not allowed. I told the police officer that I did not know it was not permitted to turn left at that intersection. He told me “ignorance of the law excuses not”.

Next steps

I am still waiting to hear back from the other programs and associations. I wait and see what happens before making a decision as to how I proceed from here.

Please note: I am not naming the B&B, its owner, nor the associations or programs. These kinds of interactions occur sufficiently enough that there is no purpose in providing the exact details.