By Trevor Busch
The merits of Taber’s controversial Community Standards Bylaw would face criticism during a recent Low German Mennonite Conference, drawing the ire of Sgt. Howard Kehler of the Taber Police Service who publicly defended the bylaw.
Kehler’s comments would come following a presentation on LGM History in Southern Alberta by Belinda Crowson on Nov. 20, in which the historian and Lethbridge city councilor talked about early attitudes towards the region’s LGM population and a traditional fear or suspicion among immigrants about law enforcement.
“If you’re from a place where there is a drug crisis and crime, and you can’t trust that police aren’t involved, one of the things that you may well imagine is you’re going to have a fear of government and police,” said Crowson during the conference at the Heritage Inn. “That was one of the things that was brought into Canada, and has certainly been an issue that we’re seeing in some of the communities is the relationships between the police and the Kanadier community. I haven’t found great details, but I do know that the police actually were also holding conferences in the early 2000s to try to figure out how to better work with the Kanadier Mennonite community.”
The town’s Community Standards Bylaw — which set fines for spitting, swearing, and yelling while allowing for public gatherings of more than three people to be broken up by police — went viral in March 2015 and would garner provincial, national and international headlines. Widespread criticism of the bylaw’s inclusions would come from the media and legal profession, as well as ordinary Canadians from coast to coast.
Article 2(c) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly as a fundamental right under the Constitution. One of the key criticisms leveled against the public gatherings portion of the bylaw in 2015 had argued that it was discriminatory and prejudicially targeting large public gatherings of LGM youth in locations like the Wal-Mart parking lot or adjacent to the Taber Community Centre, among other areas.
“We also know that there has been conflict between some of the cultural beliefs. I cannot do a history presentation in Taber and not say the word bylaw,” said Crowson. “It’s always fascinating because everything that was in that bylaw was actually in Lethbridge bylaws, you just didn’t know it, they’re all hidden. Bylaws are interesting because they’re quite often historic documents, and so there’s a lot of things in it…so when you’re looking at bylaws you have to keep an open mind because sometimes bylaws have reasons that you wouldn’t expect. But certainly the Taber community has had issues around two very different groups trying to understand how each group moves within society.”
During the question and answer period following Crowson’s presentation, Kehler took the opportunity to “clarify” for the crowd of service providers the original motivation in targeting groups of more than three, which he claimed was problems the police at the time had been encountering with intoxicated individuals outside local licensed establishments, not Mennonites.
“I don’t want to steal your thunder, but I would like to provide some clarification on the bylaw. I’m also a very proud Mennonite. My family was one of the first settlers in Winkler, Manitoba, and I’m very proud of that,” said Kehler. “All I want to say is the bylaw itself, the Town of Taber took a really bad rap in relation to it being created to target Mennonites. I’m here to tell you that it was not created to target Mennonites. It was created to give us, as police, more tools in our tool box in situations that we were actually having at our local watering holes or bars. At that time, the Mennonites were spending very little time — and even to this day spend very little time — in our local bars. So what was happening is, if we had a situation in the bars, the only option we had was to lay a Criminal Code charge. So the town looked at it, and we looked at it, is if we had bylaw charge we could simply hand someone a bylaw ticket and make it a small monetary amount, rather than ending up with a Criminal Code charge.”
Kehler laid the blame for this alleged misperception surrounding the bylaw squarely at the feet of the media, while talking about the bridges the Taber Police Service has attempted to build with the local LGM population.
“It got spun in the media that the bylaw was created to deal with the Mennonites, and I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t. We as police have worked very hard over the years to develop a relationship with the Mennonites in our community and the surrounding area. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Iron Springs and those areas to present and provide information, primarily to the youth in relation to their gatherings and such, and I do think we’ve come a long way. I think that the fear between the Mennonites and the police has changed somewhat — we’re not completely there but we are working towards that — and for them to understand that a $50 bill inside their insurance documents when I stop them on the roadside is something I won’t take. We don’t take bribes, we don’t beat people up, we don’t steal from them. The Town of Taber pays me well enough that I don’t need their money, I just need them to abide by the rules, and I need to help them understand the rules.”
Backpedaling on her previous comments, Crowson was also critical of the media attention the bylaw received.
“And you’re right, most of the information on the bylaw comes from the media, and the media is like every one of us, they make mistakes. But they tend to make mistakes that makes everything seem a little worse than it is.”
While Kehler would claim that unruly groups outside local bars was the sole impetus behind the bylaw, comments made by then-inspector Graham Abela during a March 2015 public information session would suggest otherwise.
While Abela also referred to crowds assembling outside of bars at closing time as an assembly of persons problem which the provision in the bylaw was meant to deal with, he also noted Taber had a problem with large gatherings of “individuals” in the community that had drawn many complaints from the public.
“In 2013, we received 70 calls for service in this regard. The aftermath of these gatherings found by the public and the police have been things like used condoms, urine, other bodily fluids, beer cans, and bottles,” said Abela in March 2015. “We had had reports of public sex acts, traffic complaints, and complaints of impaired driving. In some cases threats have even been made against our police officers to draw us away from the community to a place where we will be alone and then be swarmed by these groups of people.”