WINNIPEG, MB - After a summer of construction and extensive consultation with an accessibility advisory committee, the historic Manitoba legislative building’s chamber opened in October of 2017 with a greatly increased level of accessibility.
The way it was designed prior to this renovation did not allow access to the chamber by anyone with mobility issues. Three rows of MLA desks were on different levels and required a step down to reach the desk.
The Speaker’s dais and clerk’s table were not accessible, either.
Since 2000, discussions were held about enhancing accessibility. The first idea was to put an MLA desk by itself in a new fourth row. Talk about bad symbolism! The next solution was to install a lift to move a wheelchair up and down into a third-row desk.
It was agreed to wait until there was an MLA in a wheelchair before doing the renovation. The plans then sat gathering dust, though with the passage of time, this wheelchair lift solution was deemed not optimal.
In 2010 the idea was raised again, seeking a different solution, but the discussions did not go very far. Finally, in 2013 talks were again revived.
The first phase involved enhancing accessibility in the public gallery. In 2015, the stairs in the gallery were rebuilt to increase the tread size and add better lighting to reduce trip hazards. Audio speakers were also enhanced.
The year 2015 also saw the creation of an advisory committee to discuss accessibility in the chamber. Membership included reps from the disabled community and advisory groups, assembly and government officers, the contractors, hired architects, and the City of Winnipeg accessibility co-ordinator. It was initially believed a ramp could not be installed because the slope would not be up to code.
An interim solution was the idea of raising the flooring level for three desks on both the government and Opposition third rows so that a wheelchair could roll right up to a desk. This solution was possible because the outer rim of the chamber was flush with the entry level into the chamber. Six desks were removed from the third row. The flooring levels were raised and the desks were reinstalled.
In the 2016 election, an MLA in a wheelchair was elected, so one desk was retrofitted for his specific needs. Solutions were still required to make the rest of the chamber accessible. The consultant architects insisted that ramping could not be used. Instead, they offered the suggestion of installing platform lifts in the chamber to access the floor. Several options of platform lifts were looked at, including the platform lift to be installed in the Quebec visitor centre. Accompanied by the clerk on a visit to the United Kingdom, we investigated a type of platform lift available in the U.K. What we saw was a lift that was slow, noisy, and jerky while in operation.
As the new Speaker, I called for a review of the recommendation of a lift. We needed a better solution. I knew we had to conserve the character and the heritage value of this 97-year-old space. I gave the green light for the project to move ahead and we hired a new architect consultant team.
The task was to design an accessibility plan that maintained the horseshoe-shaped layout of the members’ desks in the chamber, a design that is unique among legislatures in Canada. We had to keep in mind things such as the sound for Hansard as well as sight lines for cameras, wiring, a new sound system, translation services and co-ordination. All this had to be done with tight time lines. It was estimated that the cost was going to be around $1.45 million. And it had to be done when the House wasn’t sitting.
The plan included raising the entire chamber floor 2.5 feet, an idea that came from one of the members of the accessibility advisory committee. It also involved moving the first-row desks forward to allow wheelchair access between them and the second row, installing a ramp on the Opposition side of the House and encapsulating the original marble floor under the new floor, making the change reversible, a criterion of any historic conservation project.
In addition, the Speaker’s platform was raised to be flush with the entrance level, creating barrier-free access to the Speaker’s chair and the area behind the Speaker’s platform.
To take a historic building and accomplish these changes is unprecedented in legislatures across Canada. I think with pride and gratitude to the visionaries who conceived our legislative building in 1911 with the idea that this building and its chamber were not for current use alone, but such as our descendants will thank us for. Teamwork was in invaluable component of this project.
I am indeed thankful for this beautiful chamber and very proud to have so respectfully renovated it 97 years later to provide access for all.
By Hon. Myrna Driedger who is MLA for Charleswood and Speaker of the legislative assembly, follow her on Twitter at @MyrnaBDriedger