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No vote held on proposed public spaces bylaw, council asks for more data

Edmonton city council has ordered more research into a bylaw that could have banned visible drug use in all public places, restricted panhandling, and loosened rules for food trucks.

Edmonton city council held a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss a proposed new public spaces bylaw.

The bylaw would replace three existing ones: the Public Places Bylaw, the Conduct of Transit Passengers Bylaw and the Parkland Bylaw.

The proposed bylaw expanded on an existing rule that only disallowed drug use on public transit.

It also could have outlawed panhandling on medians and near roads, among other things.

More than 60 people registered to speak virtually at Wednesday’s meeting, as city hall is still closed to the public.

Most spoke out against the changes, saying it would punish vulnerable people.

“Many of the new or changed infractions included are outright discriminatory anti-poor measures,” Sam Mason of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights told council. “And many target specifically those who have little other choice than to spend most of their days in public space.”

“Illegal drug use is already illegal in our city; it’s regulated by the criminal code and can be enforced anywhere. Additionally we already have fines on our transit system for visible drug use,” University of Alberta public health professor Elaine Hyshka said.

Breaking the bylaw could have resulted in a ticket, but not criminal charges. Fines range from $250 to $500.

Those in favour of the bylaw said open drug use and disorder are making Edmontonians feel unsafe.

“Transit stations and bus stop shelters are being used, and more to the point, abused by non-destination people. They smoke, use drugs, disrobe, sleep, start fires,” said Edmonton Transit Service inspector Leslie Cormier.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s real safety or perceived safety or discomfort. People do not go places where they feel like they’re confronted with things that they don’t feel should be happening in public spaces,” said Puneeta McBryan of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association.

Many speakers were critical of the city’s consultation on the bylaw, claiming the 6,400-person survey, as well as conversations with business groups and social agencies, didn’t go far enough.

The meeting was scheduled to wrap up at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, but council agreed to let the conversation run late.

Just before 9 p.m., council agreed to send the proposed bylaw back to administration for further research and possible amendments.

Administration was tasked with looking into what kind of anti-racism and criminalization of poverty analysis went into the proposal, options to better support environmental stewardship in public spaces, how other jurisdictions use fines for similar infractions.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi also asked for a list of alternatives to monetary fines, including diversion strategies like expunging tickets when a person seeks services at a designated social agency or medical facility, or with referral to a detoxification or treatment program or meeting with an Elder.

“We heard from one speaker that they’re doing some creative work in New York, there might be other options, and we want to have another discussion around this, what other options are available for us to probably be more effective in connecting people to services, programs, elders and cultural engagement,” he said.

Council agreed unanimously to both motions.

“This is the first time council has seen a full draft of this bylaw and it is completely reasonable and, I think, important to carry out further refinements and adjustments and changes to ensure that the bylaw is in line with the city we are working to become,” said Coun. Ashley Salvador.

“I think that this provides us with an opportunity to look at creative solutions, to add more tools to our toolbox, as we’ve been discussing, rather than fines alone,” added Coun. Anne Stevenson. 

Council did not set a due date for administration’s next report. 

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