Edmonton Journal

Dozens address council on public-spaces bylaw

Engagement process flawed without input from drug users, professor says


City council continued to hear from delegates late Wednesday afternoon with no decision yet on a proposed public spaces bylaw.

A majority of delegates in opposition raised concerns over penalizati­on of vulnerable communitie­s, while others showed support for increased public safety.

At the meeting, 53 delegates signed up to share their thoughts on the proposed bylaw that seeks to regulate specific behaviours allowed in public spaces, including participat­ing or organizing an event or protest without a permit with 50 or more attendees. Spitting in public or being caught biking off a designated park pathway on the grass could result in a $250 ticket. The bylaw adds fines for public drug use, panhandlin­g, fare dodging and loitering on transit, among other offences.

Elaine Hyshka, an associate professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, who was opposed to the bylaw, raised concerns about fines levied against people for visible drug use. She said there's public health evidence that shows sanctionin­g people for minor drug offences will not deter substance use in public spaces. Instead, it will only harm drug users, she said.

“If people are fined for visible drug use, they don't pay those fines and they end up in remand due to unpaid fines and outstandin­g warrants. We are actually greatly increasing the risk that they will die,” said Hyshka.

“All of us are very concerned with public safety and community safety, including people who use drugs. I would question the extent to which the public engagement process actually spoke with anyone that uses substances, because I think it's very important to get their views on this bylaw that will dramatical­ly impact their lives.”

The proposed bylaw would consolidat­e three existing bylaws — parkland, conduct of transit passengers and public spaces. Several delegates said they agreed with the merging of the pre-existing bylaws ,which would reduce red tape for businesses.

Doug Griffiths, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, supported the bylaw and said one of the most compelling aspects was the focus on supporting businesses.

He noted the bylaw would enhance safety and security in public spaces, which is important to create economic activity to attract customers.

“The bylaw creates a consistent and clear regulatory framework for behaviour and public spaces,” said Griffiths. “This streamline­d approach not only simplifies compliance for business owners, but also facilitate­s smoother operations, enabling them to focus on their core activities and contribute more effectivel­y to the local economy.”

While Griffiths agreed with other delegates that supports are needed to help those with addictions and experienci­ng homelessne­ss, he said the bylaw is ensuring that public spaces are safe — not addressing those issues specifical­ly.

Claire Pearen, with Pride Corner on Whyte, a local organizati­on dedicated to creating safer spaces on the streets of Edmonton and protesting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, worries the bylaw would limit people's right to protest.

“We are experienci­ng unpreceden­ted circumstan­ces both locally and abroad that draw people and communitie­s together that advocate for these causes. Our freedom to speak cannot be limited by a permit,” said Pearen.

Coun. Tim Cartmell in a blog post on Monday said the bylaw will provide accountabi­lity, safety and expectatio­ns and it is not about fining people.

“Public spaces in Edmonton, whether they be parks, sidewalks or transit and LRT stations, must be safe and comfortabl­e for the public who are there to use public spaces as intended,” stated Cartmell.

“Punitive fines people can never pay cannot be the only stick in this situation. But we need a firm commitment to honour what a huge majority of Edmontonia­ns are telling us. They are clearly saying that public spaces are for the safe use of the public and they are not for open drug use and complex social disorder. The Public Spaces Bylaw sets that expectatio­n.”

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