After work on June 28th, Samantha Oruski and her boyfriend Steve were hungry for sushi.
As they always do, the couple — both lawyers and both legally blind — had their guide dogs Gilbert and Caruso at their sides as they walked along Main Street in Whitehorse.
But at the door of Tokyo Sushi the staff said: “no.”
No dogs allowed, not even for blind people.
“We walked in the front door and she (the restaurant’s hostess) wouldn’t let us in,” said Oruski. “They said we could park the dogs outside, but they weren’t going to let either of the dogs in.”
In cities across southern Canada and the United States, a person accompanied by a working dog who is refused service can call the police.
Charges can be laid and fines can be meted out.
But unlike most jurisdictions in North America, the Yukon has no specific legislation protecting the rights of people who require working dogs.
At the restaurant’s door, Oruski, a Crown prosecutor based in Whitehorse, knew she had stumbled into an unrefined area of Yukon law that both protects her right to service accompanied by her dog, but also allows a restaurant to refuse her entry with her dog without fear of charges or fines.
She pleaded her case without success, she said.
“We said, ‘they’re working dogs, they’re allowed in.’ But they said, ‘no’ — either we could leave them outside or we could have take-out, but they could not come in and sit down.
“So, we left.”
The dogs were not allowed inside the restaurant because staff feared they would hurt business, said Cindy Chung, a waitress at Tokyo Sushi.
“They said that they were scared the dogs would scare
away the customers,” said Chung,
who was not present during
Chung’s manager was not available for comment.
Oruski will file a complaint about the restaurant with the Yukon Human Rights Commission this week.
The Yukon Human Rights Act protects the right to services of people who require working dogs, but there are no fines or charges that can be laid when those rights are infringed upon, said Lynn Pigage, an intake officer at the commission.
The act protects those with guide dogs under its “duty to accommodate” provisions, said Pigage, speaking hypothetically about scenarios such as Oruski’s.
Once a complaint is received and evaluated, the commission works to resolve the problem with those involved, she said.
“We try to settle it. The remedy (could be) that the person is always allowed in that place of business,” said Pigage. A business could also agree to change its policies, she added.
The Yukon’s duty to accommodate law applies to public services and private businesses, said Pigage.
“Under our legislation, anything that is a service that is offered to the public” must allow a person with a working dog access, she said. “Even for health reasons, they’re allowed in places.”
Oruski has a hereditary eye disease that has destroyed her peripheral vision.
Though she has some central vision, she struggles to see what many people take for granted.
“It’s like looking through an empty pen canister,” she said. “If I’m looking straight at you, I’ll see you, but if I happen to look off, less than a centimetre, I’ll miss you.”
Gilbert, her four-year-old guide dog, is a male golden retriever/black Labrador retriever cross who is black and has “big floppy ears.”
“He’s pretty un-intimidating,” said Oruski.
Gilbert helps Oruski navigate unseen obstacles, like sandwich boards, cars, people on bicycles and pedestrians, wherever she goes.
She simply needs him to live, she said.
Gilbert wears a harness and is readily identifiable as a guide dog, she said.
Her boyfriend’s guide dog is a German shepherd.
Both were harnessed when the couple tried to enter Tokyo Sushi, she said.
Though the latest incident has hurt and angered her, similar things have happened in the Yukon, said Oruski.
She has been refused service in stores with Gilbert because she “doesn’t look blind.”
Motorists have honked at her as she slowly walks along roads and crosswalks, she said.
But there’s nothing she can do: Gilbert slows his pace whenever there is an obstacle.
“I think a lot of people, as soon as they get north of 60, they think it’s a different world,” said Oruski. “There are disabled people here and there are disabled people south of 60 too. You’ve got to remember that.”
People should remember that not all of those who are blind look like a stereotypical blind person, with a cane and dark sunglasses, she added.
“My eyes look normal, but I don’t see. I don’t look like a geek, I’m sorry. My eyes don’t look goofy, I’m sorry.”
Discrimination is a often a sad fact of life for those with disabilities in the Yukon, said Bernice Montgomery, a service co-ordinator at the Whitehorse office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
“That’s the way the community often looks at people with disabilities,” said Montgomery, referring to Oruski’s story.
Being refused service at a restaurant because you have a guide dog with you is “absurd” and “out of the Stone Age” she said.
Oruski’s boyfriend is from California, where laws are more advanced.
Refused entry at the restaurant, he couldn’t understand Oruski’s powerlessness to assert their rights, said Oruski.
“He said, ‘can’t we just phone the police?’ I said ‘no, there’s nothing they’ll do,’” she said.
“I was embarrassed for the Yukon, for the fact that there was nothing I could do. He couldn’t believe that there was any place in North America that could actually get away with this.
“I was embarrassed that all I could do was phone the Human Rights Commission and it’s going to take months.
“He said, ‘you mean anybody can say no?’ I said, ‘well yeah, they can.’”
Oruski doesn’t want to be malicious and put the sushi restaurant out of business, she said.
But, “If these people say no, eventually, can the whole world say no? And then what? I use my dog to get from A to B,” she said.
“The bottom line is I am blind.”