The episode is called “Dignity down the toilet: Public bathrooms as a human right” and it was on my mind after a recent experience at a big cathedral where I attended an afternoon performance by my son’s university choir. First aired in March of 2019 by CBC Radio’s “Ideas In the Afternoon,” the show raises the question, Why are public toilets so lacking in cities across North America, despite our wealth? Journalist Lezlie Lowe visits four North American cities and investigates the impact a lack of access to toilets has on homeless citizens as well as people who need access to a toilet when they leave their homes.
I had my own singing gig the morning of my son’s performance and I slipped home for a quick bite to eat and a cup of tea before the fifty-minute drive to the concert venue. I knew the tea was likely to cause me trouble but I really needed it.
My husband and I rode with my parents, who were worried about finding parking (and who like being early). Half-way through the journey my prediction regarding the tea proved to be accurate.
“I need to find a washroom,” I said as we neared our destination, still about forty minutes before concert time.
My husband eagerly scanned the landscape. “We could stop for a coffee,” he said. But the need to find parking was a more pressing concern for my parents.
We headed into the church a few minutes later, pleased to have snagged one of the last spots in the parking lot, and discovered that the choir and orchestra were rehearsing and the sanctuary doors were not yet open to the audience, leaving us standing in what was a large stairway just inside the main doors. The small entryway soon filled and a long line of concert attendees formed outside the building. Increasingly uncomfortable, I eventually squeezed my way through the crowd to the top of the steps and approached one of the volunteers guarding the closed doors.
“Is there a washroom I could use?”
“It’s inside the sanctuary,” she said. It shouldn’t be long now.”
“Is there another one somewhere else in the building?”
“Only on the lower level. You would have to go outside and back in the side door. But I suspect that door is locked,” she said.
Ten more minutes that seemed like an hour went by before they opened the sanctuary doors. I thrust my ticket at the volunteer and headed for the facilities, only to find that there was one single washroom at which a small line had already formed. It was big, lovely, and fully accessible—the kind with a button to open the door and another one to lock it. But it was the only one. (Did I mention this was a huge cathedral boasting a membership of 2,600 families?)
I passed the time by looking around at anything but the closed washroom door and the red “occupied” light. When my turn finally came I stepped inside and pulled the heavy door shut behind me but instead of latching, it swung open again. I pulled it shut a second time and again it swung open. My cheeks burning, I started whacking first one and then the other button on the wall, to no avail.
“I think you have to let it close by itself,” the gentleman who was next in line finally said.
We stood and waited together—me and the other twenty or so people who needed to use the one toilet.
Joan Kuyek, a founding member of Ottawa’s Gotta Go!, is one of the guests in “Dignity down the toilet: Public bathrooms as a human right.” She says part of the difficulty in addressing the issue is that “it’s something that we consider culturally disgusting” and we don’t want to talk about it. She’s right. It was an awkward and uncomfortable experience for me. In reality, though, it was a brief episode in an otherwise pleasant day in my comfortable, middle class life. I can’t imagine being homeless and having to worry about where to find a toilet several times every day. Or being someone with a bowel disorder and finding myself in a public place with no toilets—or one toilet with a line-up!
Photos courtesy of Barbara Hampson
Guest Author Bio