By Wayne Litke
When it comes to high standards in small towns, I am very thankful Maple Creek’s volunteer fire department and the surrounding rural departments measure up. The firefighters kept the house Harry Bunn was renting from certain destruction when Cypress Cleaners was razed to the ground last Saturday night.
Also in the headlines is Taber, Alta. The town of 8,000 people is getting a lot of publicity this year and it’s totally free. The town and its police force were recently recognized by national media after passing a community standards bylaw that many people say is draconian and unlawful. It was passed in late February and has since drawn the wrath of critics who have vented on social media and threatened to challenge the bylaw in court, yet the town and its police remain committed to the new rules.
The bylaw attempts to regulate specific activities and prohibit others in an effort to ensure Taber’s residents live by decent standards and do not have to put up with late-night noise, graffiti, and public disturbances. It also lays out rules for an 11 p.m. curfew for minors. It may sound like a good idea, but I recall when Maple Creek town councillors discussed the merits of a curfew. They decided that enforcing it would be tantamount to having a municipal babysitting service, and that was not the mandate of the town, taxpayers or the RCMP.
Taber’s bylaw was drafted by the town’s police service and Taber Municipal Police Commission. The chief of police said most of the standards are not new and were copied from other small Alberta towns that have common-decency regulations. Taber’s mayor admits the bylaw is not perfect, but says it should be given a chance and then adjustments can be made.
The new law includes violations for spitting in a public place which carries a penalty of $75. Contravening the noise bylaw that prohibits yelling, screaming, or swearing in any public place carries a penalty of $150.
In my opinion, spitting on a sidewalk is not only a health concern due to the potential spread of infectious pathogens, it is disgusting to simply step on any body fluids that have been left at a public area. Regarding noise (I am going to sound old-fashioned), but a loud and raucous party of any type is particularly offensive to anyone who is trying to sleep in order to be rested and ready for work in the morning. When it comes to vulgar profanities, there is no need for it – especially when there are children in the vicinity. The problem with having laws dictating social conduct is the enforcement aspect – it takes time and resources. Furthermore, interpretation of the law can be an issue.
For example, assembling in public at Taber is now governed by restrictions. Specifically, no person shall be a member of an assembly of three or more persons in any public place where a peace officer has “reasonable grounds” to believe the assembly will disturb the peace. Furthermore, people at such a gathering must disperse as requested by a peace officer. Doing otherwise will cost $250. The problem is the bylaw does not include a definition of what constitutes “reasonable grounds” to believe and what constitutes a disturbance of the peace.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows citizens the right to assembly peacefully, so opponents to Taber’s bylaw are raising their voices in protest. They believe police will have the power (but not the constitutional right) to stop a peaceful assembly based strictly on an officer’s discretion or opinion that a disturbance of the peace may occur.
The town’s police chief says the bylaw will be enforced with common sense. People will not be fined for simply saying a curse word, but action will be taken if someone begins swearing at every person who passes by or goes into a blasphemous fit that causes a disturbance. In other words, the regulations are in place to ensure that everyone understands what is acceptable public behavior and what is not.
That’s how it was when I was young. We knew the police would break up a party if it got too large or noisy, and we knew a person could be fined for spitting on a sidewalk (at least that’s what we were told). We had also been taught to respect our neighbours and not have loud parties or make noise that would wake them up. Our neigbours treated us the same and we had a good neighbourhood.
It seems to me that Taber’s new community standards bylaw is about ensuring all residents enjoy common decency. It’s also about showing respect for others, and there is nothing wrong with that except that the interpretation of the law will become skewed by violators and law enforcers since it lacks some clear definitions. As humans, we always try to twist a law in our favour – that’s just the way we are – so it’s time we bring more respect back into society provided we don’t violate basic rights and freedoms.
If you are in Taber in the future and misbehave, prepare to pay for your indecency: urinating or depositing human waste in public place – $250, spitting in public place – $75, fighting in a public place – $250, attending an assembly and failing to disperse as directed by a peace officer – $250, loitering – $250, panhandling – $75, yelling, screaming or swearing – $150, allowing a minor in public place during curfew – $100, painting graffiti on property – $2,500, failure to remove graffiti – $250, creating or permitting noise that is likely to disturb others – $150, creating or allowing noise from a premises or property – $150, creating or permitting noise from vehicle – $150, creating or allowing noise between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. -$150.