Petition to reject back alley curfew on agenda for Monday meeting

Prince Albert city council voted to establish a curfew on city walkways back in February, and a group of citizens are trying to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with back alleys on Monday.

Bylaw No. 8 of 2020 will receive three meetings at the next executive committee meeting on April 20. If approved, it would head to a regular council meeting for a final vote. The bylaw restricts access to back alleys throughout Prince Albert from midnight to 6 a.m., and allows police to issue fines of up to $5,000 for violating it.

However, 135 people have signed a petition asking council to reject the proposed bylaw altogether. Prince Albert lawyer Estelle Hjertaas started the petition. She’d said the bylaw, if approved, would infringe on basic charter rights and unjustly target Indigenous people.

“The law, unfortunately, is not applied the same way to everybody, and as a criminal defence lawyer I see that every day,” Hjertaas said during a phone interview on Friday. “A lot of white people are not necessarily aware that other people experience the world in different ways from them…. Basically, people who are deemed to be suspicious are more likely to be people of colour, and in our city in particular, Indigenous people.”

Hjertaas said the term “suspicious person” is too vague, and will be used to target Indigenous people, primarily young Indigenous men. She said many residents are already afraid of police because they’ve witnessed or been subjected to unjustified police violence, and will run away from police, even if they have good reason to be in a back alley.

She said this will create problems for low-income residents who don’t have cars, and can only access their homes or apartments from the back alley. According to a survey conducted by Prince Albert’s Department of Planning and Development, 27 per cent of respondents said they use their back alley for pedestrian access.

“If I’m going to my friend’s house and they happen to live in a back alley suite and we go there, and then I walk home after the hours of curfew, technically I’m in violation of the curfew,” Hjertaas said. “Then it would be up to me to prove to the police that I was there for a legitimate reason … to prevent myself from being charged or arrested.”

Council discussed similar concerns about racial profiling when debating the walkway curfew in February. At the time, Mayor Greg Dionne and other council members who voted in favour of the bylaw said they trusted Prince Albert police to accurately and justly implement the new restrictions.

Hjertaas said it’s not about whether individual police officers are racist, it’s about how easily the bylaw can be abused by society.

“If I make a call and tell the police there’s a suspicious person in my back alley, they have to come and investigate that,” she explained. “If I say someone is breaking the back alley curfew, if they have the ability, they will come and investigate that. Who I as a citizen of Prince Albert perceive as a suspicious person is going to affect who they are called to respond to. I think the evidence that I have from what I see every day … is that that’s not applied (justly) across all racial lines.”

Hjertaas added that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken all the attention off the proposed bylaw, and made it difficult to have discussions about it with residents and councillors.

When asked about racial profiling following the walkway curfew vote in February, Mayor Greg Dionne rejected the idea that it was a significant problem. Dionne told reporters he hadn’t heard of any complaints about the bylaw, aside from those from Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp. At the time, she argued the bylaw may not have racist intentions, but it could be used in a racist way.

“It has nothing to do with the r-word (racism),” Dionne said in an interview after the February vote. “It’s nothing about that.”

The Prince Albert Grand Council also expressed support for placing a curfew on public walkways, and said they trust Prince Albert police to implement the bylaw as justly as possible.

“If a person is in the back alleys late at night for a lawful reason, and they are stopped and questioned, we should appreciate that the police are doing their job to protect us and our property,” the statement read. “If is our hope that equity in policing will be practiced and if any officers were to abuse the true intent of this bylaw, we are confident the PA Police Service will investigate any allegations and take appropriate action.”

Results from the Planning and Development Department’s community survey are also included in Monday’s agenda package. Roughly 73 per cent of respondents say a curfew would not negatively impact the use of their alley. Access to a garage or parking space was the primary concern for those who said it would negatively affect them.

Roughly 52 per cent of respondents said there should be exemptions that allow certain residents to be in a back alley during curfew hours, with 48 per cent against exemptions.

The majority of survey respondents said they did not feel safe using a back alley because of the high amount of crime. While many respondents indicated that they bylaw would “improve their feeling of safety” they also weren’t convinced it would cut down on crime.

“Respondents to the survey … indicated they did not believe that the Bylaw would make a difference, as those that may be fined under the Bylaw will not see it as a major deterrence,” reads a report from city planner Jorden Olmstead. “Respondents also indicated that they did not believe the Bylaw could be adequately enforced given current resources.”

The agenda also includes notes from the city’s consultation with Prince Albert police chief Jon Bergen. Those notes show police believe alleys are designed for vehicles, not pedestrians, due to poor lighting and the fact that they typically provide access to a connecting property.

Of the 135 people who signed the petition to reject the back alley curfew, 75 listed Prince Albert as their location. There are also signatures from residents in nearby communities like Wakaw, Birch Hills, Christopher Lake, Muskoday and Melfort, as well as a few from communities outside of Saskatchewan like Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Japan and St. Paul, Minnesota. A total of seven signees simply listed “Canada” as their location, including one person who gave their name as “My Busy-ness”. [CLARIFICATION: a copy of the petition was included in the agenda package for Monday’s meeting. That copy had signatures from 135 people. The petition is still active on www.change.org. As of Sunday afternoon, it has 180 signatures.]

There are 11 other items up for debate on Monday. The list includes a request to gift a 20-acre parcel of land to the Rural Municipality of Garden River, plus a request from the Saskatchewan Construction Association to continue all municipal projects during the summer construction season. The meeting starts at 4 p.m.

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