Ari Grief and Canadian Toilet Organization

Canadian Jewish News – December 4, 2008


By Shlomit Kriger
Special to the CJN

About five years ago, while living and working in a basement apartment in downtown Toronto, filmmaker Ari Grief suddenly had an epiphany: what would life be like if he didn’t have a toilet?

Growing up in Montreal, Grief had always been a very curious and perceptive individual. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at McGill University, but then realized his true passion was for film and ended up studying that at Concordia University, before moving to Toronto in 1998 to complete a master’s degree in film at York University.

He established his production company, Griefilm, in 1999, and he went on to create a digital feature film called 681-0638 and other projects mainly for the corporate market.

Inspired by the style of Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary about obesity in America and the possible link to fast food, he began to research the subject of toilets and sanitation, and decided it would make an interesting subject for a documentary.

“The subject has environmental and social angles and is a universal one that everyone understands and interacts with in one way or another,” Grief said.

Grief went on the road to start working on his film FLUSH! Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Toilet. He met with Jack Sim, founder of Singapore based World Toilet Organization, and numerous sanitation experts who he followed around, leading him across places such as India, China, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

He was shocked to learn that, according to the World Health Organization, 2.6 billion people worldwide, including almost one billion children, do not have access to basic sanitation. In addition, 1.6 million deaths per year can be attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and lack of hygiene.

While the direst conditions are in Third World countries, in Canada, which comprises less than one per cent of the world’s population and has 20 per cent of the total freshwater resources, sanitation systems are also flawed, explained Grief.

“With increasing worldwide water shortages, why do we flush our [feces] away with drinking water?” he asked. “We spend all this energy and systems to treat and purify our water so we can drink it, and we end up flushing a lot of it down the toilet.”

Environment Canada statistics indicate that up to one-third of the water used by the average Canadian family is flushed down the toilet. Some even misuse the toilet to get rid of garbage.

Outside the home, Grief has discovered that there are problems with public toilets, as well. There is a lack of toilets, especially in Toronto, and when they are available they tend to be out of the way or difficult to find due to poor signage.

“Good toilets make good business,” said Grief. “If I go into a store and then have to use the bathroom, I’m out of there if there isn’t one available.”

Many toilets also tend to be old, dirty, and in disrepair due to poor maintenance.

“Our toilet culture is also flawed,” he added, “because especially in Canada, there’s a pervading toilet taboo that really anytime a toilet is mentioned is in a joke or in jest.

“Public toilets are a basic need and service and should be well maintained. We shouldn’t shrug it off and laugh at it. We should stand up to the issue, but nobody really speaks to it.”

Eager to help further address issues around toilets and sanitation locally and internationally, Grief co-founded the Toronto-based Canadian Toilet Organization (CTO) last month.

Another local issue that the CTO is working to change is what Grief calls “potty parity,” which speaks to the fact that often in large public spaces women have to wait in longer lines than men to use the bathroom. The CTO is trying to get the building code changed so that it will be mandatory for contractors to install more receptacles in women’s bathrooms than in men’s, or at least put in the same number in women’s as in men’s bathrooms.

“Usually contractors will supply the minimum,” said Grief. “Let’s say the minimum is five toilets, so it’ll be five in the women’s bathroom and five in the men’s. But then they throw in maybe another 30 urinals for the men, and now it’s 35 to five.”

The CTO’s first international project is the construction of toilets for the village of Chack Hakim, near Phagwara in the Punjab region of India. In such areas in the world where toilets aren’t in place, some people defecate in the open or use bags that they throw away. This can lead to embarrassment, danger, disease, and can be detrimental to economy.

“Apart from technology, another problem is that when you have people who are used to open defecation, it’s sometimes a challenge to convince them that they need toilets and that they will need to maintain them,” said Grief. “Some people walk around with a cellphone but have no toilet.

“It’s important to also educate people and change behaviour. If people are able to relieve themselves in a way that is comfortable and healthy, that will in turn affect their communities.”

For more on the Canadian Toilet Organization, visit View Ari Grief’s website at