Ottawa family turns denial of parking space into human rights complaint

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew
March 6, 2012

Who can't sympathize with Pamela Howson's plight?

The Ottawa resident is having a tough time maneuvering her Mazda5 through the narrow lane between two houses that leads to her backyard parking space.

It's tough enough when there's no snow on the ground to get the compact 2.25-metre-wide wagon through the lane between her house and a neighbour's that, in certain spots, is as little as 2.6 metres wide.

But winter snow and ice buildup makes it even harder to thread that needle through the 12-metre-long driveway, Howson contends. The mirrors have already been damaged during attempts at backing out.

She wants to the City of Ottawa's permission to put a concrete parking pad at the front of the house in her New Edinburgh neighbourhood, a request Howson says has been denied.

But what should have been a squabble between a resident and city hall has turned into a human rights case.

Howson is a former investigator with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, so she decided to take her complaint to her former employer. The Human Rights Tribunal heard the case Monday.

Howson claimed the city's refusal to grant a variance so she could park on the front of her property amounted to "discrimination on the grounds of her family status," according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Howson had a little Honda Fit, that did indeed fit through the laneway. But she and her husband had to upgrade to the larger Mazda5 to accommodate three child car seats for their young kids.

"We have a legal parking spot we cannot access due to the circumstances of our family," she argued.

The city is denying her allegation. Its lawyers argued before the tribunal that the Howson family never submitted a $1,500 application for a variance from the city's committee of adjustment, so no discrimination took place.

Howson, who made her initial application two years ago, said once she raised her human rights concerns she was warned every city department would oppose her application, and the committee of adjustment would not consider human rights arguments.

But city planner Alain Miguelez testified the committee and city council were the only bodies that could make exceptions to zoning bylaws and planners routinely oppose applications for front-yard parking, especially in heritage neighbourhoods like New Edinburgh.

Thousands living in Ottawa's older inner city don't have on-site parking, he added.

"If we were to approve front yard parking for all of those, we'd end up with quite a different environment," said Miguelez. "It's just not workable."

The tribunal will issue a written decision some time in the near future. Meanwhile, the Howsons are parking on their front lawn.

Her plight has excited little public sympathy.

"Nobody made you buy that house," tweeted The Red Kahuna. "Stop whining, shovel your driveway and buy a narrower car."