Written for Daily Hive by Mo Amir, host and producer of the podcast This is VANCOLOUR, based in Vancouver.
Nearly two years ago, then-Vancouver mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart tweeted a photo of himself at Dude Chilling Park with a group of younger adults, some with open beers, illegally in hand. Stewart had just had “great conversations” about Vancouverites “being allowed to drink alcohol in parks such is permitted in other world cities.” While not an explicit promise, the subtext was clear: A vote for Kennedy Stewart was a vote for being legally permitted to drink in the city’s parks and beaches.
Kennedy Stewart won the mayoral election. But, as he approaches the end of his second year in office, enjoying an adult beverage in Vancouver’s parks and beaches are still very much just a “great conversation”.
“This discussion started before this term, of course, because there are people on [City] Council now [Melissa De Genova, Sarah Kirby-Yung] that are reflecting on these conversations when they were on Park Board,” says independent Vancouver City Councillor, Rebecca Bligh. She admits that physical distancing protocols due to COVID-19 have increased the urgency to allow folks to safely enjoy a drink outdoors.
To add to the frustration of law-abiding Vancouverites, the City of North Vancouver approved nine public spaces and the City of Port Coquitlam approved seven public spaces this summer that would allow responsible drinking of beer, wine, and spirits immediately.
— Mo Amir ॐ This is VANCOLOUR (@vancolour) August 4, 2020
In a presentation to Vancouver City Council in May, Dr. Patricia Daly, the Chief Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said studies show that 25% of Canadians were drinking more, primarily due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She also noted that BC had the highest alcohol consumption per capita.
However, some city councillors rejected this notion.
“As City Council, we were warned by our local health authority, Vancouver Coastal Health, that Vancouverites are not able to manage this. I object to that,” says Councillor Bligh. “People really just want to be treated like adults. The people that are going to binge drink or [engage] in reckless behaviour or noise, well, they’re already doing it now. They’re not waiting for this by-law.”
In fact, in June, Bligh was one of five councillors that voted in favour of a May 26 motion designating public space for responsible consumption of alcohol. This motion ended in a 5-5 tie with Mayor Stewart absent, so it did not pass.
On July 26, City Council revisited the idea and approved the designation of four public plazas for legal, public drinking.
However, alcohol prohibition at all Vancouver parks and beaches remains.
“Ultimately, we have a Park Board and the other jurisdictions don’t,” explains Councillor Bligh.
Council did, however, pass a motion to urge the Vancouver Park Board to allow responsible alcohol consumption in designated Vancouver parks.
“We had a motion to endorse drinking in parks and beaches to send a signal from this council to the Park Board that we’re still good. If you want to keep going on this, we do support you,” explains Bligh.
Unlike Mayor Stewart’s subtextual campaigning on this issue, Vancouver Park Board Commissioner Dave Demers explicitly campaigned on legalizing responsible drinking in the city’s parks and beaches. In fact, this was the “first motion” he brought forward to the Board.
“I’ve been pushing so hard on this,” says Demers, who insists the process had started pre-pandemic.
According to Demers, the City of Vancouver has a unique barrier to legalizing drinking in public that does not affect other municipalities like North Vancouver and Port Coquitlam. Under the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Act, as amended in 2014 by then-BC Attorney General, Suzanne Anton, “municipalities and regional districts” could designate public zones for alcohol consumption. The problem is that Vancouver parks and beaches are not governed by a municipality (i.e. the City of Vancouver); they are governed by the Vancouver Park Board which is neither a “municipality” nor a “regional district”.
“There’s no way [Park Board] could flip a switch and allow for drinking in parks and beaches,” says Demers.
As Park Board’s legal staff advised, it is legally impossible for Park Board to greenlight public drinking. Instead, the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Act needs to be amended to include “park boards” — although Vancouver Park Board is the only one in the province — in order to allow for drinking in Vancouver’s public parks and beaches.
Demers is baffled by the language of the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Act, considering the amendments were made by Suzanne Anton, who, herself, was a Vancouver Park Board Commissioner from 2002-2005. “She totally overlooked this one.”
The crux of the delay, therefore, is a necessary amendment to provincial legislation, not a motion by the Park Board. Demers points to lengthy internal communication between the Park Board’s legal staff and the BC Attorney General’s office that resulted in delays even before the pandemic.
Last week, after all the legal clarifications, the Vancouver Park Board finally passed a motion to allow alcohol consumption at twenty-two designated sites in the city.
However, due to the language of the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Act, provincial intervention is still required. Demers claims that he was told that the provincial legislative agenda was full until the end of August and it was unlikely that the province would make the necessary legislative amendments in time for this summer.
Ultimately, this saga is a legal affair between the Vancouver Park Board and the BC Attorney General’s office. It exists due to a legislative oversight many years ago that solely excluded or neglected to recognize the Vancouver Park Board’s authority over the city’s parks and beaches.
Park Board Commissioner Dave Demers or even Mayor Kennedy Stewart may have campaigned on swooping into the office and bringing Vancouverites the joy of (legally) enjoying a beer or a glass of wine at the beach. But it was a lack of political will for years that still prevents Vancouver from allowing the legal consumption of alcohol in its public parks.
The confluence of Demers’ persistence on this issue, the urgency to adapt to physical distancing recommendations, and a supportive city council will ultimately turn this tide, just probably not in time for this summer.
Of course, as Bligh notes, this sequence of events may not placate responsible adults who just want to legally enjoy a drink outside.
“The sentiment is ‘Let’s do it’. They’ve had studies and studies and studies, and [Vancouverites] are saying, let’s stop studying it and let’s see if Vancouverites can respond in a responsible way. I have every reason to believe they would.”
Have a listen to the latest This is VANCOLOUR podcast with Vancouver City Councillor Rebecca Bligh: