In 2021, pilot programs in Edmonton and Calgary allowed public drinking in certain parks. What did we learn and how has drinking culture changed?
To help Albertans endure the pandemic, the Government of Alberta passed the Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Amendment Act 2020, which allowed Albertans to drink in certain parks. In this article, we summarize the amendment’s effects on the law and Albertans.
This new law amended the Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act. Most notably, the amendments reduced restrictions on public alcohol consumption in parks. Doing so changes the experiences Albertans may have in public spaces like parks, greenspaces, and plazas.
In effect, the amendments allow municipalities or other owners of park spaces to decide whether to permit alcohol consumption in their spaces. The province also now allows public consumption of alcohol in some day use picnic areas within provincial parks and recreational areas.
Edmonton and Calgary are the two Alberta cities that have explored the opportunity the furthest, with both running full pilot programs in the summer of 2021. Several other municipalities have explored the idea, including St. Albert, Leduc, Strathcona County, and Lacombe.
The City of Edmonton ran their pilot program from May 28 to October 11, 2021, in seven river valley parks. Alcohol consumption was allowed at 47 picnic sites, which could be booked ahead of time or accessed on a first-come, first-serve basis.
When deciding which parks to use for the pilot, the City considered principles of safety, accessibility and minimizing costs. In particular, the City chose sites which aligned with existing peace officer patrols to ensure compliance and address behavioral concerns. The pilot was coupled with communication and education programs that brought awareness to the rules and encouraged responsible consumption. These programs included signs that informed patrons which parks were excluded from the pilot.
In line with the provincial law, drinking was allowed from 11am to 9pm daily. Additionally, City of Edmonton Bylaws 2202 (Parkland), 13145 (Animal Licensing and Control) and 14614 (Public Places) applied. These bylaws stated that patrons could not litter, fight or harass others. Nor could they disturb the enjoyment of other patrons or interfere with a peace officer carrying out their duties. Anyone who contravened these rules could be asked to leave.
In a survey sent out last November, most respondents said the pilot was a positive experience. The vast majority said they did not encounter disorderly conduct, noise, or litter issues. By contrast, a public engagement survey conducted prior to the pilot revealed safety concerns and disorderly behavior were respondents’ main reasons for opposing the pilot.
The City will reinstate and expand the program this summer, from May 1 through to October 10, 2022. Alcohol consumption will be allowed in parks outside the river valley but will be restricted to picnic sites. Check the City of Edmonton’s website for more information on where alcohol consumption is permitted.
Calgary ran a pilot program from June 1 to September 7, 2021 with 58 tables across the city. In tight alignment with the provincial legislation, the City restricted consumption to picnic sites, providing both first-come, first-serve options and free reservations for priority use. Information found online and accompanying reservations clarified additional rules regarding consumption and public safety.
In reviewing the pilot program, the City said that over 1500 bookings were made plus non-booked visits (which were not tracked). Almost no complaints were raised based on noise or designated sites. And when complaints did arise, they were addressed by changing the permitted public consumption locations.
The City of Calgary recommended that the program continue with changes for improvement and expansion. The largest adjustment in this recommendation was focusing the program in higher-uptake locations around the downtown core. In addition to the existing tables, the City will provide more tables in five to ten parks in higher density areas. This aligns better with the program’s intent to provide opportunities to use greenspace for those without a yard or who live in apartments. Another recommended adjustment was to include some larger bookable picnic sites in the program as well as extend the program into winter by allowing consumption at winter firepits.
Commentary on Broader Impacts
Edmonton and Calgary’s experiences indicate that allowing alcohol consumption in public parks amounts to a fairly minor change in how community members engage in public spaces. A survey of Calgarians showed that 80% were neutral about the program’s impact and only 4% had used the program. None of the respondents mentioned the pilot as a reason for decreased park visitation frequency during the summer.
Drinking culture in large Canadian cities may be slowly evolving. Up to this point, the consumption of alcohol has been a highly regulated matter occurring mostly in private spaces. Now, with Edmonton and Calgary continuing these programs, alcohol consumption is becoming a more normalized social activity in fully public spaces.
The feedback received in Edmonton and Calgary on the 2021 pilot projects highlights that many are prepared for this evolution. Although there were vocal minorities of community members who opposed these changes, most of these perspectives reflected a N.I.M.B.Y. sentiment. Community members voiced concern about potential negative impacts in their neighbourhoods. But the reports indicate there were few recorded noise complaints or other issues. Based on feedback, both cities have adjusted their approach to mitigate concerns raised by nearby residents and other community members.
Altogether, communities choosing to allow drinking in public spaces should expect that change is possible. But some opposition from residents is expected. As more communities change municipal bylaws and policies to permit drinking in public spaces, there will be more and more information available about the impact of permitted public alcohol consumption.
Commentary on the Impacts on Those Experiencing Homelessness
As vulnerable populations often experience the law differently, the impacts of these changes on the homeless population deserves special attention. Will those experiencing homelessness benefit from this law the same as those not experiencing homelessness? For example, how will a marginalized person openly drinking in a park in the middle of the afternoon be perceived compared to someone who appears to be housed, employed, etc.? Will police respond differently to these individuals as well?
While the rules do not (and cannot) discriminate based on housing status, Sindi Addorisio, former manager of the Winter Emergency Program at Boyle Street Community Services, says that marginalized populations do not drink in parks because they are too open and not usual drinking spots. Ms. Addorisio already observes differential police treatment towards this population, especially as these individuals may not always be aware of their rights. She notes that sometimes they search their belongings without the required level of suspicion. Sometimes police use excessive force when arresting them. Additionally, even though police lack the required level of suspicion, police will act in a way that makes a reasonable person in their situation feel detained. This violates the following Charter rights: the right against unreasonable search and seizure (section 8), the right to life, liberty and justice except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice (section 7), and the right not be arbitrary detained (section 9). Furthermore, Ms. Addorisio also raises the possibility that intoxicated non-marginalized folks may get confrontational towards individuals experiencing homelessness taking advantage of the same opportunity to drink openly.
The question becomes what can municipalities do to ensure that every adult benefits from this law should they choose to take advantage of it? A city’s failure to do so may violate a person’s rights under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15 is the right to be free from discrimination on certain grounds. Courts have considered homelessness as a form of socially constructed exclusion though there has been mixed lower court recognition of homelessness as an analogous protected ground against discrimination.
The bottom line is that municipalities must ensure this benefit is accessible to those experiencing homelessness just the same as it is to any other park-goer.
Review, Understand and Evolve
The cultural expectations around consuming alcohol in public places appears to be slowly evolving. Municipalities are on the front lines of responding to and enacting these changes. It will be key for administrators and political decision-makers to review changes made in other cities to understand the impacts these amendments are having or may have on the community at large as well as on vulnerable populations within communities.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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