Whitehorse residents threaten class-action over city’s lack of snow-clearing

Vincent Larochelle is the lawyer representing Whitehorse residents with disabilities. He shared an open letter written on behalf of those residents on Dec. 1. (Caitrin Pilkington/CBC)

Accessible parking spots blocked by snow and ice, letter claims.

A lawyer claiming to represent a group of Yukoners with disabilities says his clients are ready to take the City of Whitehorse to court if it doesn’t start clearing sidewalks and accessible parking spaces of snow and ice.

Vincent Larochelle sent an open letter to the city’s mayor and council last Friday, stating that in the weeks since snow and freezing rain covered the city in ice, conditions have prevented many residents with disabilities from accessing vital services, which is “discriminatory and contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

His letter states that the group he is representing, who have declined to speak to media, want to see immediate and significant action by the city — or they’re willing to take the issue to court.

The letter comes ahead of a council meeting planned for Monday evening where councillors are set to discuss a motion that would prioritize clearing accessible parking spaces.

While the City of Whitehorse did not respond to a request for comment on the issues outlined in the letter by deadline, an agenda shared by the city claims that clearing accessible parking spaces would cost the city approximately $300,000, and present “significant operational challenges.”

Also up for debate Monday is the possibility of increasing enforcement of the bylaw which requires private homes and businesses to clear surrounding sidewalks, and the creation of a downtown core snow and ice management plan.

The latter would involve the city clearing an area with the highest density of businesses and shops, and covering the cost with property taxes.

Whitehorse’s current snow-clearing strategy. Sections of sidewalks that are cleared by the city after each snowfall are highlighted in pink, trails cleared by the city appear in blue and transit stops appear in green. (City of Whitehorse)

The state of Whitehorse’s sidewalks and parking lots during winter has long been a sore point for residents.

Between 2021 and 2022, the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that unintentional falls were the top cause of emergency department visits in the Yukon.

Larochelle said clients with physical disabilities are at a higher risk of injury from slipping on ice, and when accessible parking lots and sidewalks aren’t cleared, they feel trapped.

“It’s not uncommon for them to slip and fall,” he said. “I asked some people what they do and they say the only solution is they don’t go out. It’s too dangerous.”

Under the city’s maintenance bylaw, business owners are required to clear snow and ice from any sidewalk bordering their property before 11 a.m. the day after a snowfall. Residential property owners have 48 hours after a snowfall to clear the way.

The City of Whitehorse did not return a request for the number of fines issued over the past year for failures to clear snow and ice by deadline. But in February 2020, CBC reported that despite receiving 28 complaints, the city had not issued any fines for failures to clear sidewalks.

A map of a proposed downtown core snow-management plan, which would require the city to clear snow and ice from the densest area of the city. (City of Whitehorse)

For Larochelle, it’s clear the bylaw is not functioning as intended. He said he is tired of the city blaming private property owners for the condition of public property.

“If the end result is that three weeks after a snowfall, we still have abysmal conditions, they need to step up and they need to take action,” he said.

“And in fact, the bylaws allow them to do that. They’re allowed to clear snow and ice and charge the fee to the owners, so let them do that if that’s what they need to do.”

Zakary Endress was paralyzed after a mountain biking accident and uses a wheelchair to get around. While he’s not currently affiliated with the proposed class-action, he said he is interested in joining the group.

“I just really don’t think the city has acknowledged the fact that there’s so many people needing the accessibility that they’re asking for,” he said.

Icy conditions near an accessible parking space at 4th Avenue and Wood in downtown Whitehorse. Larochelle says frozen, snow-covered ramps like this one are extremely challenging to navigate by wheelchair. (Caitrin Pilkington/CBC)

According to Statistics Canada, 31.4 per cent of Yukoners identify as disabled.

As it stands, the territory has limited legal protections in place for them.

The Accessible Canada Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation expanding accessibility requirements, does not apply to the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Nor does the Yukon have a dedicated piece of territorial legislation relating to physical disabilities, as many provinces do.

The Yukon Human Rights Act does include a section on the “duty to provide for special needs,” but that mandate has limits — the Act states “this duty does not exist if making the provisions would result in undue hardship.” It defines hardship by a number of factors, such as excessive impacts on business efficiency or financial expense.

But municipalities in the territory are still subject to challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Many times, by the time people come to me, they’re at the end of their rope,” said Larochelle.

“They’ve trusted the political process for years, sometimes decades, and they get empty promises. Silence. And that’s really the case with this situation. This is exactly what our Charter is for.”

Councillors are set to vote on Dec. 11 on the motion to change the city’s snow and ice policy.

Related stories from around the North :

Canada : Yukon can expect more rain and snow as climate changes, gov’t report says, CBC News

Finland : ‘Varpu’ storm fells trees and cuts power in south, brings ‘first snow’ to Lapland, Yle News

Sweden : “Gender-equal snow-clearing” to benefit cyclists and pedestrians in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States : Anchorage adds to record homeless death as major storm drops more than 60 cm of snow, Alaska Public Media

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