Town Bylaw 'Discriminatory'

Posted 16 hours ago

A legal group is launching human rights complaints Tuesday (today) against Smiths Falls and three other Ontario municipalities, charging them with keeping "offensive, discriminatory" bylaws in place.

One Smiths Falls bylaw restricts the number of mentally disabled people in group homes to 36 in the entire town, says Jennifer Ramsay, spokesman for the Human Rights Legal Support Centre in Toronto.

Another Smiths Falls bylaw notes that group homes can be no closer than 300 metres from each other, she said.

"They (the bylaws) are offensive, they are discriminatory," Ramsay said. "It's amazing to me that they are still on the books."

Discrimination against disabled people needs to stop, she said.

"It's sort of the last frontier in terms of discrimination. They would never say if you are black, you have to be 300 metres from the next black person. It's just absurd," she said in an interview.

Bylaws in Smiths Falls, Toronto, Sarnia and Kitchener all have the same message, said Ramsay.

"It's about keeping people out based on who they are.... When you start saying you can't live here because you are disabled, that is not a planning issue. "

She called Smiths Falls' bylaw restricting the number of mentally disabled people in group homes "graphically more offensive than the other bylaws, but all of the bylaws contain discriminatory language."

"It's pretty shocking on paper. ... These are medieval bylaws that say you can't live here, you can't live in certain neighbourhoods."

On behalf of people with disabilities, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre plans to launch the applications against Smiths Falls and the three cities Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The ARCH Disability Law Centre of Toronto is representing a group of Smiths Falls and Carleton Place clients with intellectual disabilities who will be asking to intervene in the applications, Ramsay added.

Smiths Falls chief administrative officer Wayne Brown said the town is updating its official plan and zoning bylaws.

"We already had the intention of taking that clause out," he said, referring to the restriction of 36 people with mental disabilities in town group homes.

"Staff intends to recommend to council to change these," he said in an interview Monday. "I don't expect any disagreement on the part of council."

Because three councillors are at a Toronto convention this week and another could not attend a planned special council meeting Monday, council did not have a quorum to change the bylaws Monday, he said.

Mayor Dennis Staples was at the convention and could not be reached for comment.

However, the chief administrative officer said the restriction of 300 metres between group homes might not be changed. "I am not sure how council will look at that."

Brown added although he was not part of the process when the bylaws were enacted 17 years ago, they made sense to the council at the time.

"With the impending closing of the Rideau Regional Centre, there were literally thousands of clients and staff members who would be qualified to start and run group homes. There was a concern that Smiths Falls would be overwhelmed by them," said Brown, noting only "two or three" new group homes actually opened when the centre closed.

He said council was also concerned about loss of tax revenue and the possibility of overwhelming local medical resources.

"Group homes are exempt from taxation... For every home, we lose the tax base," he explained.

"A community this size can only handle so many people from a medical perspective.... We have hundreds of people who don't have a doctor right now."

However, the bylaws are no longer required, said Brown, who said he will recommend changing them. "Would I chastise the people who put them out there? No. They had their reasons. They were trying to run a community."

Group homes can have eight or nine cars in the driveway at a time, for example, so you wouldn't want several beside each other, he said.

"Unless you live in this fish bowl, it's very difficult to understand what staff and council have to do sometimes... It may look like you are being discriminatory or a prick - excuse the expression -but you have to be careful not to overwhelm the community with people who require a lot of medical care."

He said the town has always had disabled people, including many with mental disabilities.

"I think people in Smiths Falls are quite accustomed to dealing with people who are handicapped in any manner. Do they want them in their back yard? Probably not."

Once the grievance is filed, the town will not likely contest it, he said. "I am trying to avoid... spending a whole bunch of money on legal fees for something we intend to do anyway," he said, referring to the intention to change the bylaws.

If council decides to challenge the application regarding the distance between group homes, the town will need to retain a lawyer, the chief administrative officer noted.

Article ID# 2462599

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