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Public legal drinking in Vancouver could happen this summer after all

Coun. Lisa Dominato requests council reconsider vote that sunk proposal for legal drinking in public spaces this summer
Coun. Lisa Dominato wants council to reconsider its June 2 decision not to allow legal drinking in public spaces this summer. File photo Jennifer Gauthier
A Vancouver city council decision last week that sunk a proposal from Coun. Pete Fry to allow people to legally drink alcohol in select public spaces this summer may get approved after all, if Coun. Lisa Dominato can convince council to hold a second vote.

Dominato, who voted against Fry’s motion, announced Tuesday at a city council meeting that she wants council to reconsider the June 2 decision and put it to another vote. Her motion will likely be heard at the scheduled June 23 meeting.

“I think it’s worth giving it a try,” Dominato told Glacier Media Wednesday.

Council voted 5-5 in the June 2 decision, with municipal rules stating votes that end in a tie must fail. Mayor Kennedy Stewart was on a scheduled personal leave at the time of the vote, which left the possibility open for a tie vote.

Since last week, Dominato said, she heard from the public and owners of small businesses and restaurants who support a pilot program on legal drinking in public spaces. Equity, she added, was also an important factor that emerged in what she heard from people.

“Like residents who live in apartments and don’t actually have access to any kind of outdoor space, no balcony, no amenity space and want to safely socialize with others,” she said.

“I also heard from residents speaking to me about their experiences of feeling more scrutiny because of the colour of their skin, or being identified as a visible minority. I thought we didn’t give that enough attention as part of the dialogue.”

Prior to last week’s vote, council heard from Will Shelling, a member of the equity and inclusion office at the University of B.C., who spoke in favour of Fry’s motion.

“As a black man myself, I have accepted and faced a hard reality that I will face extra scrutiny when it comes to conduct in society,” he told council.

“I’ve witnessed many of my peers imbibe responsibly but illegally on Vancouver’s beaches, but I’ve chosen not to because of the difficult reality of disproportionate rates of ticketing against Black, Indigenous and other persons of colour.”

Fry’s motion asked city staff to study the feasibility of allowing legal drinking in select public spaces. Those spaces weren’t named in his motion, but Dominato suggested plazas would be a favourable spot to test a pilot program.

Fry told Glacier Media Wednesday that he appreciated Dominato’s move to reconsider her vote, saying she often puts principles ahead of politics; Dominato and fellow NPA colleagues Colleen Hardwick, Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Yung voted against Fry’s proposal at the June 2 meeting. So did COPE Coun. Jean Swanson.

Their concerns were based on increasing alcoholism in B.C.

“It probably wasn’t a super easy decision for her to make because of where her party had positioned on this,” Fry said.

“I do appreciate it that it was a principled move for her, took a lot of courage, so I raise my hands to her for doing that. It’s not an easy road to take sometimes to break with your people.”

At the same time, Fry said he was disappointed that his desire to implement a pilot program this summer will be further delayed, if Dominato’s reconsideration motion is approved and triggers city staff to work out the details of the experiment.

Dominato's reconsideration motion was pushed to June 23 because De Genova called notice on it, triggering the delay.

“As we enter the summer months, there’s a limited window to make these things happen,” he said.

Prior to the June 2 vote, council heard from Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, who outlined her concerns about the harms of alcohol. She spoke against Fry’s motion and two others, including one that would allow unlicensed cafés and restaurants to obtain a temporary permit to serve booze.

The other motion was for council to urge the park board to operate a pilot program this summer that would allow legal drinking at select beaches and parks. Both those motions passed, with the park board still working on details to implement a pilot.

Daly told council the pandemic has had a significant effect on the mental health of Canadians and that evidence showed 25 per cent of Canadians were drinking more alcohol. She said B.C. has the highest per capital alcohol consumption rate in Canada and is home to a “significant binge-drinking culture.”

“Public health leaders in B.C. have identified this increase in alcohol consumption as one of the most serious negative unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic response,” said Daly, noting B.C. ranks first in the country in its rate of hospitalizations for alcohol misuse.

Howard Chow, one of the city’s deputy police chiefs, also spoke to council.

He outlined the existing problems police have with illegal drinking throughout the city, but said he supported a pilot project at beaches and parks.

“I support a measured approach in terms of a pilot study where we’re looking at the impacts before and after in the community…and on health and on [police],” Chow said.

“If it’s something like that, with enough constraints and oversight, I think it’s very viable.”

Shauna Wilton, the acting general manager of the park board, told Glacier Media the board continues to work with the provincial government to sort out details related to the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Act, which currently doesn’t include a provision for park boards.

“The one thing that’s slowing us down at the moment is there’s a jurisdictional issue with the province that we’re trying to straighten out,” said Wilton, noting it was important the park board had the legal jurisdiction to create a bylaw to allow drinking at beaches and parks.

“So if we’re able to do that, then we would bring the bylaw back to the board, have them approve it and then we would do it. So it’s just a matter if all those things line up, to be able to do it this summer.”