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Surveillance creep in city parks

Portable cameras could be ready by spring

PEOPLE WATCHING. The camera at Strathcona Park, where a gay couple was fined for holding hands in 2005. The city plans more cameras like this one in city parks. Credit: Pat Croteau

Men cruising for sex in Ottawa’s public parks could get a nasty surprise this summer. That’s because the city plans to purchase camera units that are easily portable and move them from park to park, says Bob Gauvreau, manager of corporate security for the City Of Ottawa.

The motion-activated camera will be linked to speakers so that city employees monitoring the cameras can talk to passersby. There are already cameras in two city-owned parks — Strathcona and Cahill — plus cameras at their open-air pool locations.

“Myself personally, I would like to see them in as many public parks as possible, because we find them fruitful,” said Gauvreau.

Earlier in the year, National Capital Commission installed cameras and cut back the brush at Remic Rapids, a cruising hotspot, in preparation for summer tourist season. Unlike the planned expansion, the Remic Rapids renovation was not a municipal decision; the NCC is run by the federal government.

Gauvreau says that the cameras are strictly there to catch vandals and are not used to apprehend men looking for nookie in the park.

“I don’t think that we’d be able to see any of that. We have not, and we have never been able to see any of that,” he says.

“I don’t care what people do further down in the bushes. It’s of no concern to us.”

But he also said that “activity in the park in any form” after 11pm is prohibited by a city bylaw passed by council, bylaw 2004-276, which came into force Aug 1, 2004.

In the summer of 2006 Terry Stavnyck and his partner Larry Rousseau were fined in Strathcona park for being out after the curfew. They were holding hands when they were stopped by bylaw officers and allegedly harassed.

But Gauvreau says that his cameras are only pointed at the open-air stage structure near Laurier St.

“The vandalism there was unbelievable. There were years we would have to paint [the structure] twice,” he says.

But Michael Vonn, the policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, is weary of the official reasons given for surveillance. The BCCLA has been fighting the Vancouver Police Department’s plan to install cameras in public places for the last three years.

“Part of what we have noted is that the purported purpose shifts depending on who you’re talking to and where you want to put the cameras,” she says.

“Better lighting could have done the same thing for one-one hundredth of the cost,” she adds, “which makes me very suspicious. It seems like it’s such an extreme solution to some punks and a can of spray paint.”

She notes that a in the UK — where the government has spent a billion pounds on closed circuit cameras — there hasn’t been a measurable decline in crime.

The danger of getting caught isn’t going to deter men from park hook-ups, says longtime activist Barry Deeprose, who staffed Ottawa’s Gayline for 23 years.

“The danger has never eliminated people from cruising,” says Deeprose.

As for surveillance, he notes that public washrooms are often hooked up to closed circuit TVs.

“Washrooms have been monitored, and that hasn’t stopped [cruising in washrooms],” he says.

“Gay men have had a tradition of transgressive sex. It started from when the only places where we could meet were for sex. And those were non-authorized venues, so it’s part of our culture,” he says.

In the 1970s, Nepean Point — behind the National Art Gallery — was a popular spot, because men could climb part way down the steep embankment to have sex. Cruising there was curtailed when the Gallery was built in the ’80s.

Mackenzie St by Major’s Hill Park was also a popular site for hustlers at the time, but when the US Embassy was built the strip became too gentrified. He also notes that some cruising has moved online and to bathhouses over the last few years.

Vonn says that the surveillance creep into public spaces is “becoming a massive battleground, certainly, in the industrialized world.”

There’s a big difference between cameras monitoring stores, since it’s privately owned, unlike publicly owned parkland.

City staff disagree. According to Gauvreau, it’s like using an ATM. You choose whether or not to use them, but if you do, you know that there is video surveillance.

He says city council made posting signage about the cameras mandatory, so there isn’t an “expectation
of privacy.”

But roving cameras mean that you’ll never be sure whether the park you’re heading to is under the watchful eye of city employees until you get there, sign or no sign.

“Yes, we would prefer notice. On another level, it’s the choice between to bad choices,” says Vonn.

Still, Gauvreau insists that it’s not a matter for the civil libertarians.

“I am a big believer in privacy and the expectation of privacy,” Gauvreau says.

“I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy.”