Plumbing matters

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A welcome sign at the NWT/Alberta border. NNSL file photo

In the immortal words of American actress Jenifer Lewis, “You sit in (expletive) too long, it stops smelling.”

Lewis, best known for her role as Will Smith’s aunt Helen in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was talking about how we tend to grow accustomed to our bad habits until we no longer recognize them as such.

Her words can also describe a problem which lies right under our noses: awful washrooms on NWT highways, most recently at the 60th Parallel Visitor Information Centre.

For years they have festered despite complaining travellers and the efforts of well-meaning politicians. Now they’re just a fact of life, but they shouldn’t be.

Those dingy, unappealing space — with their overflowing feces-covered toilets and floors that look like they could use a cleaning — are the options of only resort for drivers looking to answer nature’s call.

A few weeks ago, a photo of the roadside outhouse at the 60th Parallel Visitor Information Centre surfaced on social media and brought renewed attention to this recurring problem.

Eventually, news of the terrible toilet made its way to the halls of power and on March 6, Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson brought up the issue in the legislative assembly.

During the discussion, a number of politicians seemed to recognize that clean bathrooms are an important aspect of travel, but it remains to be seen whether the government will take steps to improve both the conditions and the monitoring of the facility.

“It goes on and on for years,” said Simpson. “Particularly at the border when the ice roads are in and all of the big trucks start coming from the south. It is where the truckers stop, and, you know, they don’t take it easy on that bathroom, Mr. Speaker, and it is not a great way to introduce visitors to the Northwest Territories.”

A number of news organizations jumped on the story and the government promptly sent a crew to go clean the toilet: another example of the media’s globe-shaking power.

Many media pundits have used this story to engage in a bit of potty humour, some have even launched elaborate investigations into the cleanliness of highway bathrooms but this is no laughing matter. When the poop hits the fan, stories like this one could flush the territory’s tourism industry down the toilet, which would stink.

A failure to upgrade roadside toilets could damage the reputation of the territory’s tourism industry, which brought in $201.4 million in visitor spending in 2016/17.

Nobody is expecting restrooms with sofas, potted plants or watercolour paintings on the side of a highway, but the urinals should be reasonably clean, the toilets should not be overflowing and the stalls should be stocked with a valuable commodity for public facilities: toilet paper.

The responsibility of maintaining highway rest stops is shared between the departments of Infrastructure and Industry, Tourism and Investment, but the outhouses are ITI’s cross to bear.

Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Wally Schumann said his department spends about $50,000 a year cleaning rest stops along Highway 3 from Chan Lake Territorial Park to the Alberta border.

During summer, government contractors service roadside outhouses, but the cleaning drops off in the winter, he said.

We don’t want the state to break the bank on this issue, but it would be nice if the government thought up some creative solutions to crack this nut.

Schumann has said the department will be looking into rotating port-a-potties, antifreeze, propane heat or running power to facilities from the Alberta side of the border.

These are good suggestions but perhaps the private sector should get in on the action. A number of communities, including Jean Marie River, Kakisa and Enterprise are close to the territory’s major highways. There is very little economic activity in these communities and their residents might want to make some money by keeping these places clean.

It might not be glamorous work, but it’s essential and regular.

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