3 min

Parks R 4 Us

The latest no-no in Ottawa: walking in the park with your same-sex partner holding hands after 11pm.

Do this and you’ll get a $120 ticket.

That’s what happened to Larry Rousseau and Terry Stavnyck when they took a Solstice walk Jun 21 in Strathcona park across the street from their Sandy Hill home.

Walking hand-in-hand around midnight, they were subjected to the humiliation of two vans and bylaw enforcement staff descending on them from opposite directions.

Charming. But it gets better.

Asked for ID, the couple said they’d left it at home. Only to be called liars, they claim. They believe they were singled out because they were two men holding hands, and their treatment by one of the bylaw officers followed directly from that kind of thinking. Most queers, I am sure, will understand where they’re coming from.

Their argument is bolstered by the comments attributed in the Jul 2 Ottawa Citizen to Linda Anderson, manager of enforcement services for the city.

Bylaw officers have discretion when they find people in parks after hours, she said.

So not all people in the park are stopped and ticketed, it seems. Perhaps only men holding hands and not willing to take any attitude from city staff. Oh, and of course the people committing acts of vandalism that the bylaw was passed last year to prevent.

There’s much to say about the stupidity of a bylaw that makes it an offence to take a late-night walk in the park. Some of it has already been said.

National Post columnist John Ivison weighed in Jul 7, noting that the 11pm curfew “reinforces all those stereotypes about Ottawa being a stuffy, uptight, government town.”

The Ottawa Citizen’s Jul 1 editorial called on city hall to scrap the bylaw, noting that it “appears geared toward preventing antisocial behaviour before it occurs.”

That, of course, is the clearest sign of a bad law. Good laws deal with specific bad behaviour, making it illegal to destroy equipment, rob or get drunk in public spaces. The sorts of things that the bylaw was aiming to stop in the parks. Bad laws, in contrast, are broad and regulate behaviour that is not in itself a problem. Like being in a park after 11pm.

The Citizen noted that Anderson’s comments that bylaw officers are explicitly told to use their discretion in deciding who to target strengthen the argument that specific groups are being targeted.

Sadly, city hall’s response so far has been to tell its bylaw officers to enforce a “zero tolerance” for people in parks after 11pm and fine everyone they find. At least, that’s what Rousseau and Stavnyck say. You see, they’ve been out every night since the ticket, sometimes in Strathcona, sometimes visiting other parks. They’ve talked to people who have suddenly been ticketed where before they had been left alone.

And in Strathcona, they’ve been stopped repeatedly at night. By police, not bylaw officers. The cops aren’t handing out tickets. But bylaw officers do so once they arrive a little later.

This is outrageous.

City council needs to call off the dogs. And immediately change the bylaw to eliminate the references to a curfew. Make it illegal to cause damage in the park. But nobody should be stopped from just enjoying his or her city.

Gays, like others, enjoy our parks. It’s one of the few places that many of us feel safe holding hands as a couple. Others of us like to cruise the parks, maybe making out discreetly behind some trees, out of sight of people on the main path. All of this is good.

None of this should result in charges and fines.

Oh, and one more thing. Rousseau has two very valid points when he demands that city hall institute sensitivity training for all bylaw staff, and that the bylaw department get ongoing input from minority groups in the community, something very much like what the police department does.

Gays and lesbians have our own issues with how bylaws are enforced, particularly in parks. City hall needs to find a way to involve our community in an ongoing way.

How about getting this all done while people can still enjoy their park this summer?