We’ve all gotta go!

Illustration: Mia Ruiz-Salvador

Toilet insecurity thrown into stark relief by pandemic

By Henry Guzman-Diaz

When the urge strikes, we get creative: “Gotta see a man about a horse;” “Gotta make a phone call;” “Doing one’s business;” “Nature’s calling.”

Everyone understands the numbers (#1, #2). Everyone recognizes this need, but rarely do we describe our bodily urges as the need for a toilet itself. No matter what we call it, we all need them. Toilets are essential for all; sooner or later, everyone’s gotta go.

But where are the loos when we need them? With so many business and public toilet closures, it’s safe to predict an increase of cases where one is forced to “go” in unaccustomed places. We are dealing with a serious access issue. It’s hardly unique to Ottawa or the Glebe; similar sentiments can be heard across the country. More experienced folks now carry toilet paper and a plastic bag everywhere they go.

Although clean and accessible toilets are something many take for granted, the current pandemic has underscored the scarcity of truly public toilets (PTs) and our dependence on privatized facilities. While there once seemed to be an abundance of toilets outside the home, the majority of those toilets were never truly “public” or always available. Such business-owned toilets were once easily accessed with the purchase of a coffee or bite to eat (otherwise referred to as a “toilet tax”). That is no longer the case in the face of lockdowns and the implementation of COVID-19 precautions by business owners.

“Holding it” until we get home (or find a toilet) is not always an option. Doing so can cause serious physical harm (pain, urinary tract infection, damage to pelvic floor muscles, kidney stones). Or alternatively (oh no!), an “accident.” When the urge strikes, we shouldn’t be faced with the dilemma of “to pee or not to pee.”

It took a pandemic to raise the public’s consciousness of their dependence on private washrooms. This increased awareness of the need for public toilets is reflected in the recent city proposal (funded through a COVID-19 infrastructure program) to construct stand-alone public toilets, one in the Byward Market, the other on Sparks Street. Other headway has been made by the addition of PTs in the two node stations of the LRT (Bayview and Hurdman) and by the publication of the public washrooms map online by the city at https://bit.ly/3bseLrf. Unfortunately, the map is currently unreliable as many of the washrooms listed on it are closed. As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, some city services that have PTs are reopening.

Every increase to PT infrastructure is impactful for the community, but much more work is still to be done. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that public toilets are essential public health infrastructure.

The GottaGo! campaign needs your help in advocating for a safe, clean and accessible network of PTs in the city. You can help by informing us about where PTs are open or not. You can help by sharing your stories with us (we’d use them anonymously). Talk to your friends and neighbours about this issue and contact your political representatives. We especially thank Councillor Shawn Menard and the urban city councillors for their help and ongoing support; we need help in advocating with more suburban and rural councillors and with the mayor. We are grateful to the Ottawa Community Foundation for a grant that allowed us to ramp up our social media campaign. Lastly, we also thank the Social Planning Council of Ottawa for their support in sponsoring us.

Like us on our Facebook page (Gottago campaign Ottawa), Twitter handle @gottagocampaign and Instagram (@gottago_campaign).

Our dedicated and hardworking volunteer team includes: Bessa Whitmore, Nick Aplin, Kristina Ropke, Eric McCabe, Alan Etherington, Zeinab Mohammed, Stephanie Taylor, Luingamla Kashungnao and Henry Guzman-Diaz.

We also want to thank the many students from Carleton and the University of Ottawa who have contributed to GottaGo over the years. Maria Doiron (Carleton School of Social Work) and a group of Telfer School of Business (Ottawa U) are currently conducting important research on our behalf.

Henry Guzman-Diaz is a volunteer and core team member of GottaGo! Campaign Ottawa.

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