A Prince Albert resident leading efforts to stop a new back alley curfew bylaw says she’s disappointed, but not surprised to city council reject her request.
Council voted 7-2 at Monday’s executive committee meeting to send the proposed bylaw to the next city council meeting for formal approval. Estelle Hjertaas, the Prince Albert lawyer who started a petition to stop the bylaw from moving forward, said council means well, but hasn’t considered how this will affect low-income or visibly minority residents.
“It’s disappointing,” she said during an interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think that we’re necessarily understanding each other in terms of the issues that we’re raising. I think there’s a lot of (people thinking,) ‘well, if no one is breaking the law, then there’s no issue and it’s just about safety.’ There is a failure to understand that this will have an impact on certain people more than others.”
Hjertaas spoke to council for roughly five minutes during Monday’s executive committee meeting. Strict COVID-19 restrictions prevented any other bylaw opponents from appearing.
She told council the back alley curfew will infringe on sections seven, eight and nine of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and open the city up to a costly and embarrassing court challenge, without putting a dent in Prince Albert’s crime numbers. She also argued it would unjustly target low-income residents who can only access their homes, suites or apartments from a back alley, and said it would lead to more discrimination against Indigenous people.
“The property crimes that are a major problem in P.A. are almost universally due to drug and alcohol addiction and poverty,” Hjertaas said during her presentation. “In some cases, the people committing these crimes have serious cognitive issues like FASD. Are these people going to be concerned about following a curfew? No.”
Hjertaas added that she’d like to see more focus on reducing the root causes of crime instead of creating more bylaws.
The five-minute presentation did little to change minds, and city council voted by the same 7-2 margin that passed a city walkway curfew in February. Hjertaas said she’d like to organize a rally against the bylaw, or at least have more bylaw opponents attend the next council meeting, but acknowledge that likely won’t happen due to COVID-19 restrictions. She still plans to speak again at the next council meeting when the item comes up for debate.
Hjertaas also sought to clarify comments included with the petition, which has since reached nearly 200 signatures as of press time. One signee wrote on March 3 that the proposal was “a flimsy pretext to expand police powers to arrest and search poor people.” The signee also wrote that “privileged councillors who spoke out in favour of it are pandering to irrational agitators.”
That comment drew the ire of Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick, who argued the bylaw would bring safety to residents of all ethnicities.
“I’m pandering to irrational agitators if you define irrational agitators as the residents of the City of Prince Albert, the business community of Prince Albert (and) seniors,” Ogrodnick said during the meeting. “They get broken into and then they have to pay taxes so that the person who broke in can have a lawyer. Everybody deserves a lawyer, but that’s who I’m representing: the taxpayers who called or wrote me. That’s who I’m ‘pandering’ to.”
Hjertaas said she has no control over who signs or comments on the petition once it’s online. However, on Tuesday she emphasized that she doesn’t believe council has any malicious motives in creating the curfew. She simply thinks it won’t work.
“I believe that all the councillors are approaching this with the best of intentions,” she said. “I want to make that clear. It’s not because they’re trying to be racist or discriminate against people. That’s not anyone’s intention. I just think that they may not be aware of (the side effects) and even after hearing from me, still don’t understand the impact that things like this do have.”
Survey’s from Prince Albert’s planning and development department show that roughly 73 per cent of residents believe the curfew bylaw would not have a negative impact on them. Those who said it would negatively impacted them cited access to their garage or parking space was their primary concern.
The survey did not ask residents whether they wanted a back alley curfew. Planning and development director Craig Guidinger said council did not ask for that information during previous meetings, so the question was not included in the survey.
“The direction we got from council initially was to move forward with the steps to create the bylaw,” Guidinger said following the meeting. “Unless directed by council, we won’t be doing any further public engagement. The bylaw will be set to go at the next council meeting. Unless directed otherwise, that will be it.”
Guidinger told council he’s had a lot of questions from residents about how police will enforce the bylaw, however, he hasn’t received any negative calls about creating it. He also said the provincial government was consulted about the bylaw. They won’t oppose it, but reserve the right to do so in the future.
When asked if the City was concerned about the legal ramifications of such a bylaw, City solicitor Mitch Holash said they’re confident it will stand up in court.
“It’s not a general curfew. It’s a specific curfew, exactly the same as we have in our parks,” Holash said following the meeting.
Mayor Dionne echoed those sentiments. He said they’ve looked at all their legal obligations and aren’t worried.
“If we worried about that, we wouldn’t do anything,” he said in an interview following the meeting.
Dionne added that he was disappointed with Hjertaas’ petition, which included signatures from people living in Ottawa, St. Paul, Minn. and Japan, among other locations outside the province.
“How do they have any vote in this City of P.A.?” he said. “That’s what frustrates me. There’s no weight to petitions anymore because they’re not true.”
The City has stopped building back alleys in its newer developments, so the curfew bylaw will only affect older areas of Prince Albert. Dionne said things like attached garages have made back alleys redundant and expensive.
“There’s a maintenance cost to keeping back alleys,” he said. “It’s like a street. They have to be graded. They have to be plowed. That’s the other reason we don’t build back alleys.”
Dionne added that the PAGC and FSIN haven’t contacted the City to protest the proposed bylaw, or a similar one placing a curfew on city walkways.
“We’ve got their support,” he said. “That’s what’s frustrating. They (Indigenous people) have the right to be protected by the police like everybody else. That’s why I asked her to define ‘person of colour.’ When it comes to crime, there is no such thing as colour. When people are going to break into a garage, they don’t think, ‘hmmm, is that a white guy’s house?’ They don’t. They break in, and if you don’t think they’re getting crime done to them, you’re living in an igloo. They have crime against them too, and we’re going to protect everyone in our community.”
When asked in February about the walkway curfew bylaw, the PAGC issued a statement saying they supported it, and trusted Prince Albert police to enforce it as justly as possible.
If approved at the next regular council meeting, the curfew bylaw will restrict access to Prince Albert back alleys between midnight and 6 a.m. Police can issue fines of up to $5,000 for residents found in violation.