Smoke Free Churchill Square

Last July, I was passing through Churchill Square during "movie in the square night" I paused to watch for a while. I saw three young girls and their father enjoying the show. Next to them sat a couple of guys, who had decided to light up some cigarettes. The father asked the men to stop smoking, and they declined. He asked them to move, and they again declined. So he and the little girls packed up and moved.  Something sparked in my brain at that moment, when I realized that Churchill Square wasn’t as welcoming as it should be for all Edmontonians. And that the current rules put on the onus on non smokers to move away from smokers, especially during programmed events. This had to change.

Yesterday, after almost a year of work, City Council passed a bylaw to ban smoking in Churchill Square. It was a close one - a 7 to 6 vote, and there were some concerns raised during the debate that I’d like to address.

First is the argument for personal liberty, that banning of smoking in Churchill Square is an infringement on people’s rights. There are lots of things we ask people not to do in public spaces, either through bylaws or rules of etiquette. I have a great deal of respect for personal liberty, especially when it comes to the fraught terrain of public health. But this bylaw doesn’t infringe on personal liberty in the City, it merely establishes boundaries for acceptable behaviour in certain settings.

This isn’t the first time Edmonton has banned smoking in public outdoor spaces; it is already prohibited in parks and recreation facilities, and in the fountain area in front of City Hall. Smoking in parks and public spaces has been banned in a number of other cities, like Calgary and Vancouver, as well as at a number of events like the Ponoka and Calgary Stampedes.

If we accept these bylaws and rules as precedents, why draw the line at Churchill Square, the centerpiece of our downtown? I see no reason why Churchill Square should be considered different from these other public spaces where there is clearly a desire to establish limits around smoking.

It seems like general best practice that if you are going to smoke, you shouldn’t do it in crowds or around children. Generally, most people are conscientious and do just that. But those rules aren’t followed universally in Churchill Square, and it makes the square a less welcoming space. That’s why I decided to put forward this motion.

Valid concerns were raised about potential enforcement of this bylaw, and how that might be acted out on the more vulnerable populations in the City. There are already bylaw officers in Churchill Square regularly, so this bylaw won’t require any additional funding or resources to enforce. Regardless, our intent with this bylaw is not to start doling out fines. Voluntary compliance has always been the goal. This means that when a bylaw officer sees someone smoking in Churchill Square, their first step will be to simply ask them to smoke elsewhere. No fines, no tickets, just a request.

As Councillor Oshry put it in Council this morning, the simple request is going to be enough for 99 out of 100 cases. Our intent is not to write a ticket for someone who can’t afford it or has nowhere else to go, or who simply doesn’t know about the rule. I have every confidence that our bylaw officers will be able to use the training they receive to act in a sensitive and reasonable manner to enforce this bylaw in the way it is intended: as a codification of an existing unwritten rule.