It was supposed to be a quiet midnight walk in the park across the street to celebrate Solstice.
But Jun 21 will instead be remembered by Terry Stavnyck and his partner Larry Rousseau for the treatment they got from an Ottawa bylaw officer, who slapped them with a $120 ticket for being in Strathcona Park during prohibited hours.
Two weeks later the gay couple are still upset and dumbfounded. They believe they were fined because they were “two gay guys walking hand-in-hand late at night.”
“If I had been walking with my ex-wife this never would have happened,” says Rousseau, shaking his head.
Rousseau and Stavnyck have been living across the street from the city park for the last six months. They said this was the first time they ever had a problem in their new neighbourhood on Range Road.
And they think most Ottawa residents would be surprised to hear that it’s illegal to be in any of Ottawa’s approximately 700 parks between 11pm and 5am. Bylaw 2004-276 came into force August 1, 2004, yet few parks have any signs stating the closing time, including Strathcona.
Rousseau and Stavnyck say they were stunned when the officer informed them of the curfew. They were just quietly walking, not disturbing anyone. “It’s not like we walked in with a ghetto blaster and there were noise complaints,” says Rousseau. “Then I would understand why we were ticketed, but that wasn’t the case.”
They were, however, holding hands, and believe that’s what drew the attention of the bylaw officers in a park known for gay cruising.
Michael Fitzpatrick, a city spokesperson, says the couple was fined because “they refused to leave the park and became belligerent.
“It has nothing to do with them being gay. Other straight couples have been asked to leave the park as well.”
Rousseau and Stavnyck recall a different story. They say the bylaw officer who fined them went beyond his duty, treating them in a very “discriminatory way.”
“When he asked where we lived and I said across the street the officer said, ‘Bullshit, you don’t live across the street!’ so I repeated, ‘Bullshit? You don’t believe me?’, and then of course, it turns out that I was the one who was swearing and being belligerent,” says Rousseau.
Then he and Stavnyck were “herded out of the park with two bylaw vans following them to the house with flashers. Then the bylaw officer demanded to see ID and when we got to the house, he said, ‘You stay here, you go in there.’ In other words, I was detained outside, while Terry had to run into the house to grab ID.”
Fitzpatrick says while bylaw officers do have the right to ask for ID, citizens are not obliged to provide that information. “As far as I know, they have no power of detention or arrest, or power to compel you to provide ID. They are not allowed to perform arrests, except in extreme cases where they might have to do a citizen’s arrest.”
The bylaw officer – identified as Rob McConnachie -was not available for comment.
Rousseau and Stavnyck called a July 6 public meeting at the Sandy Hill Community Centre to discuss the park bylaw. They invited city staff and a city councillor to come. They didn’t come. But 15 public residents and three journalists turned up.
Jamie Cashin, bylaw officer for the Sandy Hill area, said he and other people he knows have walked around the park late at night without a problem. “I think you guys were targetted.”
He says they should have been given a warning at the most because they were in the park after curfew, but they certainly shouldn’t have been fined and treated the way they allege they were.
Fitzpatrick says the bylaw was implemented to deal with noise disturbance, partying and vandalism, and that bylaw officers always use discretion. “Strathcona Park is the number one park for vandalism. Certainly the park, being a parking area, has been the source of complaints and one of the more active parks in the downtown area.”
Rousseau and Stavnyck both say they have no problem with bylaw officers patrolling the area for this kind of activity. In fact, they say they feel more comfortable having someone there keeping an eye on things. But a person who wants to go out for a quiet walk should not be “harassed” for doing so, says Rousseau.
The fact they were holding hands when the two vans descended on them hints at the real issue, says Rousseau. Gay men sometimes have sex in city parks, including Strathcona, at night. Rousseau and Stavnyck believe one of the reasons the bylaw was implemented is to stop gay men from doing so.
“Gay men having been having sex in these bushes for decades,” says Rousseau, pointing at the park behind him. “With the coming-out culture we have today, people are having constant sex in the bushes and people seem offended by it. But straight people have sex in the bushes, too. So it’s a double standard. When it’s a man and a woman having sex it’s all good, but when it’s two men it’s obscene.”
“If there is sex in the bushes then fine, that’s an indecent act that can be charged under the criminal law, but apply the law equally,” says Stavnyck. “And besides, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re going to have sex in the bushes. All we were doing was quietly walking holding hands.”
Paul Hutt, coordinator of the central district for bylaw enforcement, says he has never heard of bylaw officers having problems with gay men having sex in parks and that this has nothing to do with implementing the bylaw.
“Frankly, I don’t think the city is targetting any groups and to claim that is false from the city’s perspective. Everyone is treated fairly. This (gay men having sex in parks) has never been brought to my attention, and there have never been, to my knowledge, problems of any inappropriate or indecent acts in terms of people being caught having sex – the problems we have had are activities such as vulgarity, drinking and vandalism.”
Rousseau and Stavnyck are appealing their ticket. They are also circulating a petition to amend or repeal certain sections of Bylaw 2004-276, specifically the park curfew, which they believe contravenes the section of the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms which deals with the right to peaceful assembly.
The couple has also been invited to attend a Jul 18 meeting of the police liaison committee for the gay community. They plan to push for a bylaw liaison representative to also sit on the committee, and for sensitivity training for all bylaw officers.
“We won’t be surprised if we have to pay the ticket,” says Rousseau. “We were in the park and it says you can’t be there at such and such a time. But that’s fine, I want the adjudicator to find us guilty because then we can have this handled by the [courts]. We’re prepared to take this all the way.”
Stavnyck agrees. “You know, too many gay people would just take the ticket and pay it without saying anything. A lot of people have been asking us why we’re going public and attracting attention to ourselves. But there is a human rights issue here and if no one speaks up then you better be prepared for more wrongs.”