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Local MPP Harris proposes broader rules for service dogs

Local MPP Harris proposes broader rules for service dogs BROADER RULES PROPOSED Mathew McCarthy,Record staff Connor


Mathew McCarthy,Record staff

Connor Mulder found a shady spot to lay down with his service dog, Gatsby, during the National Service Dogs 20th anniversary celebration in Cambridge on Saturday. Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris wants to broaden Ontario's rules for service dogs.

Waterloo Region Record

WATERLOO REGION Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris plans to introduce a private member's bill to ensure people with disabilities who need a service dog are accommodated in all public places.

Harris held a news conference in Queen's Park on Monday to discuss his proposed legislation, which would extend the accommodations for people with service dogs mandated by the Blind Persons' Rights Act.

"We have all come to appreciate the work service dogs do for the blind," Harris said in an interview. "Unfortunately, the law is moot when it comes to folks with other disabilities."

While the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act allows accommodations for service dogs for the disabled, Harris said many public institutions including schools often fail to provide them. His bill, which he plans to introduce later this week, includes a $5,000 penalty for refusing accommodations. Similar legislation was recently passed in British Columbia.

Harris is also calling for identification cards issued by the attorney general of Ontario for certified service dogs, and a $500 fine for false representation.

Harris was joined in Toronto on Monday by some local residents who depend on service dogs.

"They all speak of barriers," Harris said. "Clearly, we have work to do."

Kitchener's Donna Baldwin is frustrated by the difficulty she's faced just bringing her autistic son Jack's service dog onto school property for drop-offs and pickups.

The Grade 4 student received service dog Jenson, a standard poodle, in February. Baldwin said St. Teresa Catholic Elementary School was advised of arrangement. But, when Baldwin and Jenson walked Jack to school, they were told dogs were not allowed on the property.

Since then, she's had numerous meetings with school officials and a letter was sent home to all parents about the situation and to see if there were concerns.

"We're just really no further ahead," Baldwin said. "I'm still being told that they're trying to work through a couple issues of phobias."

Baldwin said the school is now allowing her to pick up Jack and let him spend a few minutes with his dog midday at a delivery entrance. But it's not enough, she says.

"I believe that Jack and Jenson should be allowed to be at the school at the same time," said

Baldwin, adding the dog helps Jack focus and calms his anxiety.

"I'm talking about public access," she said. "It'd be no different going to any other place that he may go."

A spokesperson for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board said service dogs are allowed in

its schools, subject to the board's policy. While the board wouldn't comment specifically on Baldwin's case, in the past it has accommodated students requiring a service dog.

Military veteran Jim McLean was also at Harris's news conference. The Kitchener man got service dog Elvis three years ago after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from combat while serving 13 years in the Canadian Army.

"That was wonderful because it changed my whole life," said McLean, 52. "Before, I couldn't go anywhere."

Some places still seem to be off limits. McLean had trouble with the identification card he was given from National Service Dogs while trying to go into the downtown Kitchener courthouse with Elvis, a black Labrador.

He likes the plan of introducing official government identification for certified service dogs to make it clear to everyone they're legitimate.

"I think it's a smart idea," McLean said.

Harris said we're doing what's possible to accommodate people with disabilities, "and this is just another aspect of it."

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