Edmonton eyes tougher regulations on bear spray sales following rise in incidents

On a fall afternoon in 2021, Linda McGeough was standing at the bus stop waiting for her bus in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood when she heard a noise. 

She remembers turning around and being pushed to the ground by a man who was waving a canister in the air. 

“Then all of a sudden I felt like I was burning” she said. 

“I couldn’t see, I could barely breathe.” 

Attending paramedics told her the symptoms were caused by a spray containing oleoresin capsicum, the active ingredient in bear, dog and pepper spray.

This type of attack is not uncommon in Edmonton. 

An Edmonton Police Service report to the community and public services committee Tuesday showed incidents involving these types of sprays had risen between 2015 and 2020, from 1,711 to 3,424.

A blonde woman with a pixie cut dressed in gray and black standing inside a grocery store.
Linda McGeough said she was attacked with a spray containing oleoresin capsicum during the fall of 2021 while waiting for a bus in Alberta Avenue in north Edmonton. (Submitted by Linda McGeough)

The report offered a number of recommendations including charging individuals found in possession of tampered bear spray and consistent rules for businesses around sales. 

Councillors asked police and city administration to continue their work looking at restrictions that could be adopted under current bylaws.

“I think this will give additional tools to EPS to reduce harm as well as hopefully reduce the number of incidents that we have seen in our city,” Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told reporters after the meeting on Tuesday.

Sohi said the increase in the use of sprays within the city was concerning. 

Any products containing oleoresin capsicum are controlled under federal regulations and individuals wanting to buy bear spray have to show ID and fill out a form. Carrying pepper spray is illegal in Canada, except for use by police. 

The report showed that 62 per cent of attacks happened within 100 metres of bus stops while attacks within 400 metres of schools were also very common. 

A municipal bylaw around sale of bear spray has been implemented in other parts of Canada including Surrey and Chilliwack in British Columbia. 

Chilliwack implemented a bylaw in 2021 that only authorized vendors could carry bear spray.

Sgt. Krista Vrolyk, media relations for Chilliwack RCMP, said since implementing the bylaw, they saw a 50 per cent decrease in incidents in 2021 and a 55 per cent decrease in attacks in 2022. 

“We’ve seen a very substantial decrease in the incidents involving bear spray, pepper spray or mace in our community,” she told CBC News in an interview. 

Acting Sgt. Andrew Furman, with the Edmonton Police Service, said the main issue was establishing clear guidelines to sellers.

“And then the second part of all of that is that we’re looking to have a safe transport condition of that product, so it has a safety of the device fixed so that there can’t be any accidental discharges and that also the label isn’t been tampered with so that we can recognize what sort of spray it,” he said.

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