Toronto
2 min

Morality police

If you think creativity, entertainment and art are dangerous, you’ve come to the right place.

Toronto, that is.
 
And we have the City of Toronto’s bylaw office to blame. Or, more accurately, we have the City of Toronto’s intricately crocheted, Victorian-inspired bylaws to blame, and, as a result, a bylaw office empowered to suck fun out of this city.
The latest casualty is the long-running Cineforum, a project of Reg Hartt’s that brings movies to cinephiles as a launching pad for discussion. The problem, apparently, is that Cineforum is hard to classify: Is it a home business? A school? A private social group?
That kind of boundary-blurring event really gets bylaw officers excited, even if it’s completely, utterly harmless. 
Hartt was visited on Aug 20 by bylaw officers during a private screening of the 1921 silent film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and told that his home-based film screenings had to stop. Hartt, as of press time, appears ready to give in.
That’s a shame.
This is at least the third time this year bylaw officers have been fingered for trying to break up parties that aren’t easy to categorize.
In April, bylaw officers crashed a burlesque show at Revival Bar on College St, asking performers for ID and intimidating organizers. Burlesque, with its sexy costumes and cheeky theatricality, blurs the line between theatre, dance and striptease. 
It doesn’t help that Toronto’s stripping bylaw falls under the heading “burlesque” in the law. Strippers are required to buy a $400 licence and are allowed to perform only at licensed strip clubs. Most burlesque performers are not licensed.
Just before Pride, Wrongbar owner Nav Sangha complained that bylaw officers were targeting him, looking for any excuse to dole out fines. Wrongbar, situated in a gentrifying strip of Parkdale, is caught in a tug of war between partiers and other residents who want Queen St W to stay quiet at night.
Wrongbar has been fined only once, Sangha told Xtra in June, even though bylaw officers are always hanging around. The reason for the ticket? Being four seats short of the required 110, given the bar’s capacity. A storage room full of recently busted stools failed to mollify officers.
Wrongbar is one of dozens of Toronto nightspots with a category problem similar to that faced by Hartt and the burlesquers: it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the city’s useless categories for watering holes. Is it a restaurant? A pub? A nightclub?
Toronto is hardly alone in this problem — the quirky and the unusual are targeted in other cities as well. Bylaw officers shut down Vancouver’s Iron Bar, allegedly for overcrowding, and in Ottawa, they’re policing the vocabulary of sex shops. Not good news all around.
It’s no surprise that bylaw officers are especially interested in subversive, queer or otherwise edgy events and businesses. After all, the history of our city’s bylaws is the history of morality campaigns. The intricate fabric of the bylaws themselves shows they’re designed to keep Toronto sanitized rather than safe.
It’s 2010 — time for this to stop.
It’s time for a comprehensive review of the city’s bylaws, with an eye to shifting the focus away from monitoring morals. A brave city councillor (I’m looking at you, Ward 27 candidates) needs to lead a policy review process resulting in the kind of omnibus legislation that would make Pierre Trudeau proud.
Until then, the citizens of Toronto — whether Hartt, Sangha or the burlesque troupe — will have to wage individual battles to keep the city sexy and fun. I’m ready to stand with them. Are you?

Marcus McCann is the managing editor of
Xtra.