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New Brandon bylaw means city can fine people for failing to shovel sidewalks — but won’t for now

Changes to Brandon’s snow-clearing bylaw are being put to the test this week, after the city was hit by almost 30 centimetres of snow in recent days.

Doug McCallum arrived home from Florida soon after the first major snowstorm of the season hit southwestern Manitoba on Sunday. 

On Tuesday, he got home to a driveway covered in knee-high snow drifts and began shovelling out the snow.

“There’s a fair amount here, but most of Brandon doesn’t look that bad,” McCallum says. “This stuff blew in pretty good.”

Under a recently amended City of Brandon community standards bylaw, residents can now be fined up to $150 for failure to clear snow from any sidewalk adjacent to their property — including the public sidewalks.

Snow clearing has always been required for residents and businesses, but the fines for failing to clear sidewalks are new, Brandon city manager Ron Bowles said.

McCallum says the bylaw change is a good idea.

“Do your part,” McCallum said. “I mean, it’s not too much longer till spring.”

He does worry it could disproportionately impact people who can’t physically move the snow on their own.

But the City of Brandon says it runs a “snow angels” program that can match people who need help with a volunteer.  

A man shovels snow.
Luis Ramirez says the bylaw could work if everyone works together, but is concerned it passes the burden of snow clearing on to Brandonites. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Luis Ramirez spent the better part of two days shovelling out his and his girlfriend’s home after the storm, which Environment Canada says dumped 22 to 29 centimetres of snow in Brandon.

“In general, if everybody contributes, you know, it would help … a little bit,” Ramirez said, but he feels like the bylaw is passing the burden of snow-clearing on to Brandonites.

About education, not punishment

Because the community standards bylaw just came into effect this winter, the focus has been on education rather than fines this year, said the City of Brandon’s Bowles.

It’s taking the city longer than usual to clean up after the major snowfall, and there is an acknowledgment that residents will face the same challenges at their homes, he said.

Fines are treated as a last resort and none will be issued during the first year of the new bylaw amendments, said Bowles.

“We’re not rushing to give tickets. We want to educate people.”

He said it’s hard to give a firm time frame for when a sidewalk should be cleared, but the bylaw is intended to focus on what is reasonable.

Bowles added fines for bylaw offences will likely be largely complaint driven.

If a person who is able to clear snow hasn’t done so “after repeated attempts or reminders of what their obligations are,” then the “fine, in the future, could come into play,” he said.

A man wearing a toque stands in a city's downtown surrounded by snow.
Brandon city manager Ron Bowles says this year the focus is on education around the bylaw this year, not fines. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The new bylaw took different bylaws and merged them into one covering a range of community standards, touching on issues like loitering, panhandling, graffiti and property maintenance, among others.

The intent of the bylaw changes, which Bowles described as administrative housekeeping, was to spell out community standards and expectations for residents in one place.

In addition to consultations with the community, Brandon also looked to other cities for best practices on bylaws around things like snow clearing, said Bowles.

Bylaw problematic

But the latest storm will be an important test for the bylaw, said Brandon University sociology professor Chris Schneider, because there is the potential it could face legal challenges due to its vague wording. That could lead to discrimination in how it’s enforced, he said.

“A gamut of people” could face harm due to ambiguous wording for different offences under the bylaw, he said, ranging from fines for those who can’t shovel their sidewalk, those playing music in public or people accused of loitering.

A man with a beard smiles.
Chris Schneider thinks Brandon’s new community standards bylaw needs to be rewritten or scrapped. (Submitted by Chris Schneider)

The bylaw includes, for example, a prohibition on “any loud, blasphemous, abusive, obscene, or insulting language or singing or shouting in a boisterous manner” that could be “deemed likely to disturb the peace of another individual.”

But Schneider said the definition of things like “blasphemous” noise is open to interpretation when it comes to enforcement.

He also thinks the city should do more consultation on the bylaw, or rethink it altogether.

“I think it’s in the best interest to amend this bylaw, change it, scrap it, come together, create a new one,” he said.

“I suspect it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when … this is challenged.”

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