Street sense

Erica Butler pounds the pavement.



Earlier this summer, the mayor and 20 city councillors voted in favour of a motion asking the provincial government to enact something called the Safe Streets Act, similar to legislation currently in effect in BC and Ontario. Upon seeing the moniker Safe Streets, you might reasonably assume this is legislation cracking down on street crimes like swarmings or assaults. Or maybe the idealistic among you might suppose it involves stricter regulation of our most dangerous street presence: the automobile. But no. The Safe Streets Act is not about street crime or traffic safety. The Safe Streets Act is about keeping panhandlers and squeegee kids out of your face.

First things first: Panhandling is legal is Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the freedom to ask someone for something on the street is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The council-endorsed Safe Streets Act, if ever enacted in Nova Scotia, would make what it calls “solicitation in an aggressive manner” a fineable offense, and allow the police to arrest people at their discretion for perceived violations. Practically speaking, it’s a law that will only apply to poor people. The act does not target aggressive behaviour in general, just the kind that comes with a request for money or food. If I were over-enthusiastically preaching religion or animal rights in front of the Spring Garden Library, I could get in your face as much as I like (within the limits of the laws we already have, of course). But if I’m in your face asking for money, the Safe Streets Act proposes, I can be arrested without warrant, fined from $100 to $1,000, or imprisoned for up to six months.

The act defines aggressive as “likely to cause a reasonable person to be concerned for his or her safety or security.” Upon reading this, one might be concerned enough to ask, “You mean we don’t already have a law that keeps people from threatening my safety?” Indeed we do. It’s called the Criminal Code of Canada. “The Criminal Code contains all kinds of offenses for threatening behaviour,” says Claire McNeil of Dalhousie Legal Aid, “whether its threats themselves, gestures, assaults, attempts to do all of those things. Those are all criminal offences.”

So, why would we need a Safe Streets Act? “With the Criminal Code the burden of proof is a lot more difficult to achieve,” says constable Mark Hobeck, of the Halifax Regional Police. To charge someone under the Criminal Code, you need evidence, witnesses or, at the very least, a victim. And while police receive complaints about panhandlers, they apparently do not receive complaints about the kind of aggressive behaviour that would warrant criminal charges. A Safe Streets Act would make things much simpler. Under a Safe Streets Act, says Capp Larsen of the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, the police “don’t have to get a complaint from anyone saying this person threatened me. They can just take it upon themselves to decide who’s being aggressive and who isn’t.”

The basis of council’s overwhelming support for the Safe Streets Act is a short, one page staff report without a single piece of statistical or anecdotal evidence to suggest that Halifax has a public safety issue at hand, especially one that begs for an increase in the discretionary powers of the police force. Capp Larsen agrees. “I don’t think there is a problem with aggressive panhandling in the city,” says Larsen. “I think the occurences of people feeling physically threatened are very, very small. There’s much larger occurrences of people just feeling uncomfortable.”

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