Canadian cities legalize alcohol in parks. Some are celebrating, others are afraid it’s a slippery slope

Calgary Count. Gian-Carlo Carra says the idea of ​​legalizing drinking alcohol in some city parks came directly from local residents.

Numerous “unsolicited” responses to an investigation into public parks called on the city to relax alcohol rules and urged the city to investigate the idea, he said. Cross Country Check-up

A pilot was launched last summer making it legal to consume wine, beer and spirits at 58 designated picnic areas in Calgary. It proved a success, with more than 1,500 bookings for the tables, according to figures from the city.

“There’s the idea that, maybe if we don’t stuff these things in dark corners and call them vices and really enjoy them in moderation and integrate that into a healthy society, we’ll be in better shape collectively,” Carra said, representing Division 9 of Calgary.

Calls to relax rules around drinking alcohol in public areas have increased in recent years, partly spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating gathering outside.

Calgary expanded its pilot program in May and other cities are following their approach to the problem. This spring, Vancouver and Edmonton expanded similar programs that began last year.

All three cities restrict alcohol consumption to between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. In Vancouver, public beaches and park amenities such as playgrounds and swimming pools are off limits to those with alcohol.

The city of Calgary expanded its park alcohol program last month. Visitors are allowed to drink alcohol at designated picnic areas, like the one pictured, in parks around the city. (Mike Symington)

Still, critics of the idea say it can lead to inappropriate — and potentially unsafe — behavior, such as alcohol-related violence and vandalism.

The Toronto City Council voted last month not to allow consuming booze in parks, and instructed staff to study the matter further and report back in 2023.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who have complaints about things happening in our city parks that are off-putting and a problem for the community, and some of those things are fueled by illegal drinking,” said Stephen Holyday, councilor for Toronto’s Ward 3 , in an interview with Check.

“The way I’ve considered this is that it seems to be a solution looking for a problem.”

Equity issue for people without outdoor space

Proponents say allowing alcohol in public parks is a matter of justice, especially in Canada’s urban centers, where many residents live in small apartments with little or no space to socialize.

“The question really is whether the city is being portrayed as a place where the vast majority of people have spacious backyards…or whether we realize that in places like Toronto, a lot of people live in small apartments and they may not even have a balcony, and that’s why they may need to socialize in parks,” said Mariana Valverde, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

But Holyday argues that changing laws to allow drinking in parks will open the door to “something that could cause problematic behavior” such as excessive partying or disrupting other park users, and that legitimizing alcohol could make it more difficult. for officials of the law to limit this behavior .

Canadian cities legalize alcohol in parks. Some are celebrating, others are afraid it's a slippery slope
People watch the late-day sun from Riverdale Park East in Toronto in October 2021. Toronto City Council members voted against allowing alcohol consumption in parks last month, forcing staff to study the issue further. (Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press)

As it stands, in Toronto, people caught drinking alcohol in parks could face fines.

Existing laws already cover crimes such as vandalism and violence, said Dan Malleck, a professor of health sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and an expert on drug and alcohol regulation and prohibition.

“There has to be a bit of a leap of faith and an acknowledgment that most people will be reasonable — and also an acknowledgment that if things go wrong, it won’t be catastrophic,” he said.

Holyday recognizes that people already drink in parks, despite statutes against it, and few tickets are issued to those who act responsibly.

By choosing when to buy a ticket, some people benefit from a lack of enforcement, while others, such as those who are homeless, are disproportionately disadvantaged, Valverde warned.

“If I went to a park with my family and we shared a bottle of wine with our picnic, I very much doubt the office holders would be after me.”

Canadian cities legalize alcohol in parks. Some are celebrating, others are afraid it's a slippery slope
Critics say opening the door to drinking alcohol in parks can exacerbate alcohol abuse, alcohol-related violence and vandalism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Alcohol-free areas needed

Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, warned that more freedom in alcohol consumption can exacerbate alcohol abuse.

While he advocates “keeping things as they are,” Naimi said he believes more regulation is needed around access to and consumption of alcohol.

“There are many good public health and safety reasons why these kinds of laws and regulations exist in the first place, and undoing them must also be done with equal care,” he said.

Naimi said it is important for the public to have access to non-alcoholic spaces, even for those who like to drink.

Malleck, who is a strong supporter of relaxing the rules around drinking alcohol in parks, agrees there should be options and said drinking can be restricted to designated areas and parks.

Creating a one-size-fits-all rule is inherently “undemocratic” to protect a minority who would be negatively affected by alcohol or react in problematic ways, he said.

“What’s going to happen is you’re going to have a lot of resentful people doing things that aren’t necessarily in anyone’s best interest, like drinking unregulated in public and showing off other rules.”


Written by Jason Vermes, with files by Steve Howard and Abby Plener.

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