Thank you very much for inviting me to present today.
I am here first and foremost as a person who is blind and who uses the service of a guide dog—Lucy, who is under the table attempting to behave herself. Second, I am here as a representative of the CNIB who believes that this law is very important for the people we serve across this country.
When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP for short. The doctor told my parents I was going to lose my sight and become completely blind. My parents were devastated. I thought this was a very interesting piece of information for about five minutes and proceeded to go outside and play with my friends because I was the same person before the information as I was afterwards, and at five I just didn't get it.
When I was 10 years old, my parents were told that my sight had diminished to the point where I was considered legally blind, which is approximately 10% sight or less. My parents took me to the CNIB, registered me as being someone who is legally blind, and I got large-print books at school. Again, it was no big deal. I was the same person as I was the day before.
It wasn't until the age of 16 or 17, when my sight had diminished to the point where I could no longer identify faces in front of me, that I realized—this is going to be an issue; I am going to have some problems.
People who know me today would never consider me as someone who ever lacked in confidence or had a problem with self-worth or self-esteem. I have to tell you that at 16 or 17, when I had big, thick, coke-bottle glasses and suddenly had to use a white cane, my confidence level was as low as it could possibly be. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how I was going to go through life, so I decided I needed to learn some skills.
Using a cane is very independent and freeing for many people. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Canada who use a white cane and get around independently, and who are really capable with it. I was clearly not one of them, because it just didn't do it for me. I didn't like it. I was embarrassed by it and didn't want to use it, which resulted in a blind woman running around the town bumping into things, tripping over things, and quite frankly becoming a safety concern for many people. It was time for me to have another option.
In October 1984, I decided to go to Leader Dogs for the Blind, in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and I was partnered with my very first guide dog, a golden retriever named Clyde, otherwise known as Classic Clyde.
That day in October in Michigan—I like to tell people I was only two at the time but that would be a lie—leader dogs gave me two things. One was a dog that could take me around, keep me safe, and guide me. The second thing they gave me was a clear understanding that not having sight did not mean you couldn't have vision, hopes, and dreams.
With my dog and the dogs since—there have been many—I have travelled from Montreal to Victoria. I've been to the United States, in many of the states. Last year, I travelled alone with Lucy to England, Scotland, and Norway, just with my dog. I have gone through many college campuses and university campuses. I have obtained two college diplomas, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree. My sights at that time were set on more adventure, because I had four extra feet to help me.
Since 2009, I have gone skydiving, rappelled down the outside of the Sutton Place Hotel in Edmonton, 29 stories—while dressed as a superhero, I might add—and driven a stock car. In the last couple of years, I have decided to challenge myself just a little bit more by doing triathlons, including two half Ironmans, and this year, at the age of 50, I am going to compete in my first full Ironman at Mont Tremblant. None of this would have been possible without the starting dog of Clyde. Over the years, my dogs have guided me to so many places, but most of all they have guided me towards my hopes and dreams.
As Stephen has already expressed very clearly, with the loss of a dog, whether it be through violence, illness, or just the end of a working relationship—because, just like humans, these dogs retire—we all go through a period of grief. That grief is no different for us than it would be if it was a family member, because truly these dogs are our family members.
There is a lot of time that is invested into training the dogs and the people. Sometimes I think we focus on the fact that our dogs have been injured, and we should. We should also remember that the person who works with these dogs goes through extensive training. This isn't just about, here, have a dog. My dog didn't fall out of the sky wearing a harness and I grabbed it and walked away. That just didn't happen.
My dog went through a year of puppy-raising, six months of training, and then we were introduced. We spent four weeks together, training together, where I had to leave my family and dog to go to work with them. Then it takes another six months to a year for us to become a good working team because this relationship isn't about turning a switch on or off. This relationship is built on trust, love, and a strong bond. This is a massive amount of time out of a person's life.
I'd like to tell you about a friend of mine who lives in the United States, Denver actually. Judy is her name. Judy went home with a dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind. We were in class together and I met her beautiful chocolate Lab. We trained together, spent the time in residence, and she went home. Not long after she went home there were problems happening in her apartment building. Her dog started shying away and falling down and she couldn't figure out what was going on with this dog. It took her some time to realize that there was a gentleman in the building who didn't like the fact that she had her dog there because it was a no pets building, and if he couldn't have a dog there she shouldn't be able to have one.
Since she couldn't see him she had no idea that every time she left the building he would walk up beside the dog on the left side, which was the other side from her, reach underneath the dog, grab its feet from the other side, and flip it over. She thought her dog was falling. Somebody saw it and told her. The dog was so devastated it had to retire after only six months. She went back to Leader Dogs and got another dog, but the problem didn't stop, it happened again. With that dog it got so bad with these attacks that when the dog saw the gentleman on the other side of the street it would bolt to try to run away. Again, a second dog was ruined by the same attacker.
She decided it was time to move, as she couldn't deal with this. On her third dog she moved to another apartment building but had no understanding that her stalker wouldn't go away. He continued to stalk her to the point where she eventually left town and moved out of state to go live with her family. It took four dogs ruined. Not once was this gentleman ever charged with anything because he was not attacking her so therefore it was not assault on her. He never physically hurt the dog so therefore it was not damage to a dog. Plus, there was never anybody who could prove it. She was told since she could not visually identify him she could not be a proper witness. This situation was devastating not just for the dog but for her; she had to continue through life dealing with that issue.
From a CNIB perspective the CNIB provides services to people across this country who are blind and partially sighted, and we have been doing so since 1918. I haven't been there since 1918 just so we're clear. We provide rehabilitation services, peer supports, camps for kids, and all sorts of counselling and other supports to help people to learn about technology, how to get around with orientation and mobility, and so on. Although CNIB does not train or provide guide dogs to their clients, we have a good understanding of what these dogs mean because we get to see them in service every day. We get to see what they do to build confidence, to empower people, to provide them with independence and freedom, and we get to see their devastation when bad things happen.
I personally have never had a person attack my dog. I have had another dog attack my dog, and that one incident caused that dog to have to retire. She could no longer work because she turned aggressive. We cannot have aggressive guide dogs out on the street. I think it's important for us to understand that a dog is not just a dog.
I hear a lot of people say to me, what a beautiful dog. I heard this several times in the last 30 minutes, as a matter of fact. She is a beautiful dog. She is a kind dog, and I would suggest she has the biggest heart of anybody in this room, but she has a job to do. She is a tool for me for my independence. I would tell you that she is not just my sight; she is my entire life. I hope to never go through the situation that Quanto's owner has gone through. I pray that will never happen. But laws like this will help people to understand that this is not just a dog. This is an animal that is dedicating her life, her service, to an individual who needs her.
I feel for Quanto's owner and for Stephen and for all those others who have lost their animals, and I am thankful that they have given us the opportunity to include service dogs for people with disabilities in this legislation. They serve...just because.