An advocate for people with disabilities says destroying a popular urban walking trail would be a form of discrimination.
Marcie Shwery-Stanley said that when a 1.5-kilometre loop was upgraded with wheelchair-accessible bridges this spring, the Baille Ard Trail became one of the few places in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality where people with mobility issues can enjoy nature.
“I could never ever dream of going out on a trail if it wasn’t for this,” said Shwery-Stanley, who celebrated at the time by having a picnic in the woods. “Some of us — and I don’t want to paint a pathetic picture — don’t have a lot of things that we can experience with no challenges like that trail. This is really important. Here we are going backwards. We’re taking away from people with disabilities.
“That’s robbing me of that opportunity. It’s discriminating against me.”
Robert Zwarun travelled the trail in his motorized scooter for the first time earlier this month.
The Sydney resident has Friedreich's ataxia, an inherited degenerative disease that affects his balance, motor control and speech — essentially making it appear that he’s drunk.
Zwarun, who typically uses a four-wheeled walker, said he’d never been in the woods before and he describes it as a life-changing experience.
“I just could not believe how peaceful it all was. It was just ‘Wow’ — I was just totally blown away by it. Even now, I could not find the right words to describe how incredible it was,” he recalled.
“The one thing I wanted to do was just pick a trail and go — I didn’t have any set plan or anything. I just wanted to go out there and, in a way, just kind of get lost. I know it sounds like a crazy thing to say, but if you haven’t been there before, you’re really not going to know all the nuances of the trails. You just want to take all the experiences in, just try to find your way around there and just try to appreciate every bit of nature around you.”
Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA Derek Mombourquette was directly involved with the efforts to make Baille Ard Trail accessible to people with mobility issues, helping to secure the $10,000 needed to add the bridges.
“We have a situation with the Baille Ard Trail where we have given so many people the opportunity to not access only nature, but it’s family time, it’s community time and it’s a place of healing,” said Mombourquette, who recently attended a community walk staged by citizens concerned about how the CBRM’s current flood mitigation plan would affect the four-kilometre trail systems and the surrounding forest.
“It’s beautiful. We need to celebrate it and we need to protect it.”
While CBRM staff and engineers from CBCL Ltd. are considering changes, members of the Baille Ard Recreation Association suggested to the flood mitigation plan, the early proposal called for a series of massive berms cutting across the 70-acre site and the two brooks that run through it.
While council has technically already approved the plan and wastewater and public works staff have said they’re prepared to begin work in the spring, councillors Amanda McDougall and Kendra Coombes have said they will propose motions to bring the matter back for another vote.
Mombourquette said he’s also waiting to see what the final design looks like but noted that the province will have the final say because Housing Nova Scotia owns the land on which the trail is located. So far nothing has been approved by the province and Mombourquette said he’s committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect what he calls an “important piece of public infrastructure.”
“What I’ve said to the city and what I’ve said to the community and what I’ve said on social media is that we want to do whatever we can to support flood mitigation efforts — we’ve already done that and we continue to do it — but we also as a government have made important investments in the trail because the community loves that trail. We’ve made that trail accessible. We committed funds to clean it up after the flood. We’ve provided other funds for programming and trail maintenance because it is something that is important. It is an urban forest and if we’re going to look at flood mitigation work, it’s important work to be done, but we need to keep in mind that we need to do whatever we can to protect that trail,” said Mombourquette, who is also the energy minister.
“As the local MLA I will make sure that my voice is heard throughout the process.”
Meanwhile, Zwarun said losing the trail wouldn’t only affect people with disabilities like him and Shwery-Stanley, who needs a wheelchair to get around.
“I don’t think it’d just be discriminating for her or for me — it’d really be that way for everybody,” said Zwarun. “If you’re actually going to put these flood mitigation berms in there, which they’re talking about, it’s actually taking away something that’s needed in this day and age.”