As several Canadian cities loosen public drinking laws, Toronto rejects proposal again – The Globe and Mail

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People sit and lie in the sun at Kitsilano Beach Park in Vancouver, in May, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Several Canadian cities are loosening their public drinking laws by allowing residents to crack a cold one at local parks or beaches, while Toronto has rejected a proposal to allow alcohol consumption in some outdoor spaces for the second year in a row.

Although some people have long advocated for more European-style drinking laws in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more immediate conversations as crowds flocked to green spaces to gather more safely and because restaurants and bars were closed.

Last summer, cities including Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver allowed alcohol consumption in parks on a trial basis, identifying no major problems. Those policies are continuing, and in some cases expanding, this summer.

“I’m very pleased that our slow wade into the deep end of the pool has been splashless so far,” Calgary Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra said. “But on the other hand, I would just like to be swimming in the deep end.”

In Toronto, city leaders are hesitant to dip their toes in the water. After a heated debate last Thursday, councillors effectively killed a motion to undergo a pilot project of their own this summer but they supported a motion brought forward by Mayor John Tory to further study the idea and reconvene in 2023.

Councillor Josh Matlow expressed frustration at his colleagues’ refusal to push forward. “We don’t need lots and lots of new studies to determine what the rest of the world has already discovered, which is responsible adults act responsibly,” he said during the meeting. Mr. Tory said he has “no issue with anyone responsibly having a beer or glass of wine,” but said support from council just isn’t there.

“I do not support opening the door to begin drinking in parks. Gosh, I like to have a beer. Maybe we’ll have one tonight watching the hockey game,” Councillor Stephen Holyday said. “But I grew up knowing that there were two places you could consume alcohol: the privacy of your home or in a licensed establishment.”

Concerns noted by opponents of allowing open consumption in parks ranged from disruptions, to residents, to enforcement resources and negative public-health outcomes. But studies from cities that implemented the pilot programs show many of those issues have proven unfounded.

A report on Calgary’s pilot program, which allowed locals to drink at select picnic tables across the city last summer, said they only received two complaints related to litter and public urination. It said parks superintendents, police and bylaw officers reported no issues. The program has now been expanded to include more individual picnic tables and, soon, the use of six parks. Edmonton has also broadened a similar policy on public drinking.

Vancouver’s parks board is also expected to allow drinking in parks again this year, with a vote on the issue planned for Monday. The city allowed consumption in 22 parks last year.

“Despite poor adherence to drinking-area boundaries, behaviour was largely respectful and nonproblematic,” said a report presented to the park board late last year. While the report noted areas for improvement related to litter, monitoring and site boundaries, it concluded the project was an overall success.

Dan Malleck, a historian of drugs and alcohol who teaches health sciences at Brock University in Ontario, said much of the rhetoric around alcohol consumption in Canada still stems from the temperance movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries that framed alcohol as the reason for societal problems.

“It’s that classic idea that one drop of sewage in a barrel of water corrupts the water,” he said. “Most people are going to drink responsibly, [but] there are all these other things that people automatically link with public drinking, not even public drunkenness.”

Dr. Malleck said people often jump to very serious issues, such as drunk driving, alcoholism and aggression, when conversations about relaxing alcohol policies take place. And while those issues must be addressed, jumping to extremes isn’t productive and does not reflect the reality that many people will enjoy a beer or glass of wine at a park responsibly, he said.

In Montreal, while consuming alcohol in public spaces is “strictly prohibited,” the city allows people to drink in picnic areas if they are eating a meal. It’s not clear what constitutes a meal but police, generally, don’t strictly enforce the law.

Mr. Matlow said he will continue to advocate for the relaxation of drinking laws in Toronto, arguing if people with backyards have the freedom to sit outside with a frosty beverage then so should people without access to outdoor spaces.

“I am, by nature, an optimist,” he said. “I believe that it is inevitable.”

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