By Dave Mabell
Southern Alberta Newspapers – Lethbridge
For years, Taber built its fame as the “corn capital of Canada.”
But across Canada it’s now become infamous for its “community standards” laws, which include a $150 fine for uttering a swear word – and as much as $7,500 for graffiti.
Details of the bylaw, approved recently by town council, have circulated across Canada on Twitter, in Facebook comments, through national media including the CBC and the National Post, French-language newspapers in Quebec, and even outside of Canada through media outlets such as CNN. The online debate “went viral.”
In response, a Lethbridge group of defence lawyers says it’s ready to mount a constitutional challenge to sections of the Taber law, saying it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights.
But Taber Police Chief Alf Rudd continues to defend the Community Standards Bylaw.
“It’s operational,” he said, and town police will apply it as they see fit. “We’re getting support from the community,” he pointed out.
The bylaw’s stated aim is to “regulate and prohibit certain activities in order to prevent and compel the abatement of noise, nuisances, graffiti and public disturbances and to provide for a curfew for minors.”
But it’s only going to be applied “in extreme circumstances,” Mayor Henk De Vlieger said Tuesday.
Lethbridge lawyers Wade and Miranda Hlady say defence counsel here are prepared to defend any Taber resident who runs afoul of some of the bylaw’s more problematic provisions.
“Members of the Lethbridge Defence Bar intend to challenge the constitutionality of the bylaw,” they announced in a Facebook posting for Taber residents. “Don’t allow your community to infringe upon your rights as a Canadian citizen.”
The town, Hlady said, seems to be writing laws to cover issues already addressed by federal law.
“They are not filling a vacuum ”
The bylaw’s restriction on public assembly can be challenged, he said.
“It seems be really draconian.”
University of Lethbridge political scientist Lisa Lambert was among the first to question the Taber law’s legality, when a student voiced concerns after reading a Lethbridge Herald report on the law. Before commenting, she read the bylaw.
“It’s so egregious,” she declared. It contains “violations of fundamental freedoms” including freedom of assembly.
Any meeting of three or more people could be deemed illegal by a police officer passing by, she warned.
“Little towns get bad names because of this kind of nonsense,” she noted. “This is so embarrassing.”
Noting online comments suggesting the law has a racist intent, Lambert said German-speaking Mennonites who’ve moved north from Mexico could be one target. But teenagers, homeless people and Taber residents who live in poverty could also feel the law’s heavy hand.
“It doesn’t apply equally,” she said, because middle-class people are seldom charged under existing laws governing public behaviour.
Lambert praised Lethbridge lawyers for coming to citizens’ defence on a pro bono basis. But she predicted the legal challenge could prove costly for Taber taxpayers.
Now is the time for town council members to reconsider the whole matter, she said.
“They should say, ‘We made a big error’ and withdraw the bylaw in its entirety.”
But the mayor said council intends to stick with it.
“We took the position we would try it out for awhile,” he said.
Sections of the Taber law are very similar to bylaws in place in other Alberta communities, De Vlieger said.
“It’s a tool for police to use in extreme circumstances,” he said.
But by using the bylaw as authorization to issue tickets, the mayor said, police could relieve the justice system of the need for court appearances.
Rudd said the bylaw was written after a review of the town’s existing law, along with bylaws in other towns across Alberta.
And “it’s not new to communities in Alberta,” where local authorities may also face problems like large outdoor gatherings where people violate the province’s liquor laws.
In Taber, he said, some citizens are concerned about “young people stepping out of line.”
Applying charges under the bylaw “is up to the discretion of the officer,” the chief said.
While Rudd is confident the law would withstand a Charter challenge, he knows one could be in the offing.
“That’s what the courts are for.”
Taber has grown, Rudd pointed out, as a result of Mexican Mennonites moving in.
“We want to welcome these groups and assist them any way we can,” contrary to any suggestions of cultural discrimination.
“We’re doing a great job of being a welcoming community.”