Gregory Scott Hill just wanted a warm bite to eat.
But when he, his wife, and his guide dog walked into a Toronto Ali Baba’s Restaurant on a bitterly cold February afternoon in 2013, an employee told them the dog had to go.
“Why do I gotta go through this?” Hill, 52, recalls thinking. “It’s tough enough to get around being a blind guy, but to have to be fighting just for your rights all the time,” he says, trailing off. “We’re not in 1955 anymore. This is 2014 — and Canada yet.”
The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario recently agreed, ruling in Hill’s favour on a discrimination complaint he filed in April last year.
The restaurant’s owner, Yousef Bani-Ahmad, was ordered to pay Hill $5,000 in compensation and post signs welcoming service animals to his franchise locations. All of Bani-Ahmad’s staff must also complete an online “Human Rights 101” training course.
Though Hill, blind most of his life, doesn’t feel that $5,000 is enough, he concedes the ruling is fair.
“Some of these restaurant owners, the only way that you can wake them up is to shake their wallet,” he says. “If they were to have a disability of some sort — other than what seems like the disability of greed — then maybe they would understand what we have to go through.”
What Hill experienced that day happens more often than he likes to admit. “Toronto, it’s a big place. There’s so many people that just don’t understand human rights.”
He had a long Monday of errands in the city that day with wife Marta Londono. The Markham couple was relieved to find Ali Baba’s Restaurant on Dundas St. W. open, as the city was still recovering from a Feb. 8 snowstorm, one of the biggest in years. The two were tired, hungry and bitterly cold. Freezing rain fell sideways, he recalls, cutting at their faces. When they walked into Ali Baba’s around 3 p.m., they thought they’d found the right spot for a late warm lunch.
But, spotting Mara the guide dog, the employee said they had to leave because of health regulations against dogs in restaurants. When Hill informed him that Mara was a service dog and showed him an ID card issued by the Attorney General’s Office, the employee allegedly called his boss, Bani-Ahmad — a phone call Londono filmed with her phone, outraged.
“[He was] more interested in what his boss says, not what the law is,” says Hill.
Bani-Ahmad, who represented himself at the tribunal, denied receiving such a phone call that day, but acknowledged that his employee had made a mistake. He “accepts that the situation was embarrassing for Mr. Hill,” the tribunal’s decision reads. “He confirmed that he believed that a person’s dignity is ‘worth his life.’” Bani-Ahmad could not be reached for further comment.
The couple left for another Indian restaurant down the street after the employee told Hill the couple could be served, but the dog had to stay outside.
Isai Chalmiev, Hill’s legal representative, says this was a clear-cut case of discrimination, but it still baffles him.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me, how people from other parts of the world don’t know that a service animal is a service animal. It’s not a regular animal,” he says.
Chalmiev usually helps clients fight traffic tickets as a paralegal at GTA Traffic, but has begun to branch out with cases like Hill’s. “We gotta preserve our human rights,” he says. “This is all we have at the end of the day, right?”
The tribunal ruled in Hill’s favour on June 25, citing section one of the Human Rights Code: “Every person has the right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination,” including disability.
“If this ruling stops somebody else from having to go through the indignity that I did, or stops a store owner, or a restaurateur from discriminating — fantastic,” says Hill. “There’s no other way to say it than just blunt force. It’s gotta stop.”