Grace Brulotte requires a wheelchair to get around, and says that her quality of life goes down dramatically each winter due to poor snow removal and management in town, which locks her at home. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Grace Brulotte requires a wheelchair to get around, and says that her quality of life goes down dramatically each winter due to poor snow removal and management in town, which locks her at home. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Snow piles on challenges for those with mobility needs in Fernie

Local disability advocate feels shut in every winter

A warm spell might have made it easier to clear some of the snow in the Elk Valley, but local disability advocate Grace Brulotte says that winter in Fernie reliably locks in those with mobility issues, and the city’s snow removal policy doesn’t seem to have any solutions for her or others in similar situations.

“I wouldn’t consider Fernie an accessible destination in general, but in the winter I’d say the little accessibility the town does have kind of becomes irrelevant,” she said.

“The snow and poor snow clearance creates so many barriers for people with mobility challenges, some of them are impossible to overcome.”

Brulotte was born and grew up in Fernie, and has a condition called Arthrogryposis. It’s a rare condition that means that all her joints are stiff, with only a few degrees of flexibility, and low muscular strength. She also has extreme Scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine.

Her case is considered life-threatening.

“While I try to maintain my independence as much as possible, because of my lack of mobility I am a full-time wheelchair user, and I require care 24-hours a day to support my quality of life,” she said. “Because my spine has deteriorated quite a bit in the last year, I’ve lost a lot of functional ability, and I also require frequent medical and physical treatment to maintain my pain and needs at a manageable level.”

But Brulotte says going about her life even to maintain her health — let alone her quality of life — is near impossible in Fernie during winter, while the same barriers are also up for the elderly or those with similar mobility needs, with a severe impact on quality of life and ability to maintain good mental health.

A lot of things she does throughout her days all had to be sacrificed in winter, and that wasn’t fair, she said.

“There are some things that are absolutely essential to my quality of life, and foregoing them has huge consequences,” she said, explaining that regular Chiropractor appointments had now been cancelled three weeks in a row as of mid-January, with lasting effects.

“It’s when people like me can’t access essential services, such as medical or treatment appointments, that this lack of snow removal becomes devastating.”

Brulotte is but one resident facing challenges, but she pointed out that many with similar challenges simply move elsewhere.

One former resident that moved is Robert Pugsley, who lived in Fernie for almost 20 years, but moved to Kelowna in 2021 after sustaining an injury to his back while paragliding that left him paralyzed from the belly button down.

He needs a wheelchair to get around, and explained that moving was required in order to improve his living arrangements and quality of life as he worked his way towards independence, which included needing to be around others in a similar situation to learn from.

“There was limited options in Fernie,” he said.

“There aren’t really any people to learn from, because everybody has either moved away … because of the snow or because there isn’t a community there to learn from.”

He said that overall Fernie was not a very accessible town, and while snow wasn’t something that could be controlled, there were plenty of other challenges.

Pugsley said that upgraded building codes that allowed for ramps into stores and public buildings would go a long way towards making Fernie more welcoming.

“There were places I just couldn’t go.”

Lack of accessibility forced people to move, and because there weren’t similar people with similar injuries, it was easy to feel isolated.

“When you’re the only person of your ability and injury level in a small town, you do feel cut off. You’re not going to be playing wheelchair basketball or any organized sport that anyone can get into. You won’t find that within any reasonable driving distance from Fernie.”

Going outside to socialise or meet others was a luxury that was closed off to Brulotte in winter, who said that even five centimetres of snow on the ground in Fernie can see her locked up at home for days waiting for snow clearing to happen – not just on city streets, but sidewalks, in front and behind of businesses where she has to access buildings and anywhere snow touches the ground.

Brulotte said that things like uncleared sidewalks, snow piles blocking her from crossing the street, high berms and excess snow plowed into handicap parking spaces were all barriers she knew would be waiting for her every time it snowed.

While every winter was a challenge, she said that the quality of snow removal was going down.

“In the last five years I’ve noticed a real decrease in the quality of the snow removal in town, which of course creates more challenges for people with mobility issues.

“I was born and raised here, as was my father, and we’ve never seen the snow removal as bad as it is this year,” she said.

The City of Fernie recently moved to an updated snow-removal program after two years of trials, but Brulotte said it appeared to have forgotten people like her despite her own regular campaigning on the issue over the years.

“I think this new snow removal policy is far from an improvement. They would be wise to go back to the way it was done before I think,” she said. “When you hold a public meeting to discuss the pilot program, and you hold it in a building that is totally inaccessible, that is a pretty blatant choice to exclude those with mobility challenges.”

The city regards the updated policy as an improvement across the board, including for those with mobility concerns, but the events of the last few weeks were a challenge that had overwhelmed the municipalities’ capacity, according to chief administrative officer Michael Boronowski.

“During the last extreme weather event we failed to deliver on that policy for a lot of reasons, many of which were completely out of our control. Having a dump of snow right at a peak of Omicron, then melting and rain left us unable to deliver the service the community expects,” he said. “For that, we apologize.”

Moving forward he said that the policy was intended to improve sidewalk accessibility with a new sidewalk machine.

“Regular reviews of the policy also take into consideration comments from the public.”

But Brulotte said that she has been trying to engage — and had been for many years prior to this winter’s snowfall — and was yet to get anywhere.

Mayor Ange Qualizza said that the last few weeks had been frustrating for everyone, and that nobody was shut out.

“The recent extreme weather event was brutal for everyone across B.C. and into Alberta, most especially for those requiring assistance or supports with mobility. No person is shut out of conversation at the City of Fernie with intention or otherwise,” she said.

“It feels incredibly challenging for our team to engage with any member of the community right now with so much being forced to online-only for over two years.

“Council has not met in person that entire time, and these layers are frustrating to us as well because we want to people to have better access to engage us.”

For Brulotte, engagement remained an issue with or without the pandemic limiting in-person contact, especially considering that places like City Hall and the Courthouse (where adult disability services are located) are not accessible in person for her. Both feature steps to get inside, as do many public buildings and businesses all around town.

For the city, Boronowski said that steps were being taken to increase accessibility beyond challenges in winter, such as holding meetings online, publishing more material to the city website, and opening their public meeting viewing place to a fully accessible location.

“(These) are all steps to improving accessibility until we can secure funding for what is a very expensive renovation to City Hall or a relocation of council,” he said.

Additionally, he said the city council has previously unanimously supported a resolution to prioritize accessibility in all capital projects, “which we have doing since the resolution.”

Brulotte said that above all, action was needed rather than promises.

“The snow removal issues greatly affect the quality of life of many residents, and it needs to be taken seriously by council.

“Words without action are just words, and it’s time to see some action when it comes to the health, safety, and access for people with mobility challenges in Fernie.”

READ MORE: Snow removal in Fernie causes issues for disabled

READ MORE: Snow removal still an issue for mobility challenged in Fernie
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