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Woman with guide dog refused service at Toronto restaurant


Kaye Leslie and her guide dog Jordan were on their way to meet family for lunch Sunday when nephew-in-law Steven Lewis called with a surprising message: an employee at Paramount Fine Foods was refusing to seat the group because the golden retriever couldn’t mix with its halal-style food.

Lewis said he requested a table for four with a “bit of extra space” for the guide dog at the Middle Eastern restaurant and bakery on Yonge St. The unidentified employee told Lewis and his wife Leah, Leslie’s nice, that dogs weren’t allowed in the near-empty restaurant.

“I said, ‘No, it’s a service dog. It’s a guide dog.’ He said, ‘No, this restaurant’s halal, you’re not allowed in here with any dogs,’” said Lewis, a onetime Toronto resident who was in town for the weekend from Muskoka.

All businesses licensed by the City of Toronto must provide service to people with service dogs, according to the city’s licensing bylaw.

After learning about Sunday’s incident from the Star, Paramount Fine Foods CEO Mohamed Fakih said the company allows service dogs across their 13 locations, a policy printed in their operating manual.

“Probably it’s a single mistake from a junior employee,” he told the Star on Monday.

Fakih said he was unaware of a link between halal food — which is prepared as prescribed by Muslim law — and a ban on service dogs or dogs in general. He also welcomed the family back to the restaurant to “show that we’re different than they thought.”

Leslie said she was shocked to receive the phone call from Lewis on Sunday, though she’s been discriminated against before because of her guide dog. She has previously taken a few taxi drivers to court after they refused to pick her up.

“It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does I think, ‘What year is this?’ I think, ‘Wow, we’ve really come a long way, but we’re not there yet.’ It never ceases to surprise me.”

How food is prepared doesn’t factor in to the city’s bylaw, said John Decourcy, director of bylaw enforcement at the City of Toronto.

“Everybody should have access to all the licensed premises that Toronto has, regardless of what they’re serving,” he said.

If a person with a guide dog is refused service, Decourcy encourages them to call 3-1-1 and lodge a complaint. Every complaint is investigated and, if there is evidence to support a charge, a ticket of up to $500 can be issued.

The city will investigate Sunday’s incident, he said.

Leslie’s nephew-in-law Lewis said the employee who refused to serve the group of four was the only one he saw in the restaurant Sunday. He doesn’t want anyone punished but wants everyone in the service industry to be aware of Leslie’s basic right to have Jordan at her side, no matter where they fall in the restaurant’s hierarchy.

“Regardless, even if he works there, he should be educated in what the protocols are.”

Danforth-area resident Leslie said these days she only reports the discrimination she experiences about 30 per cent of the time. When she does report it, other people who many not be as used to being blind or who may not be as well-versed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are front of mind.

“The reality is, if people don’t want to serve you with your dog, they will find some excuse.”

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