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Laws For Us, Laws for Them. An article by Micheal Vonn, BCCLA policy director, that appeared in the October 20, 2004 issue of the Vancouver Sun

Imagine this: You’re late for work, waiting for the bus and realize that you’ve only got a ten dollar bill. So, you ask around, looking for someone to change your ten or just flip you a twoonie to help you out. Sound illegal? It would be under the proposed Safe Streets Act. Whether or not you are worried about that, probably depends on who you are.

The Safe Streets Act would prohibit soliciting “in an aggressive manner” and any solicitation of a “captive audience”. In this legislation, you are “soliciting” if you ask for money or anything of value with or without something provided in return, and you are “captive” in situations when you are using, waiting to use or departing from a bank machine, pay phone, public toilet or parking lot or waiting for a bus. So, any enterprising Brownie who attempted to sell cookies to “captives” could be charged. Except that it isn’t going to happen. Proponents of this legislation claim that it targets behaviour and not people. But that’s very hard to believe. Everyone knows this law is about panhandling. This isn’t a law for us, this is a law for them.

The BC Civil Liberties Association has always maintained that aggressive panhandling should not be tolerated. But causing a disturbance, common nuisance, harassment, uttering threats, assault, robbery, extortion, intimidation and mischief are all already against the law. There are ample provisions to deal with intimidating and dangerous behaviour under the Criminal Code. Proponents of the Safe Streets Act maintain that the Criminal Code provisions are not workable and somehow inadequate to deal with “aggressive panhandlers”. However, I’ve yet to hear why this is. This failure to explain encourages the surmise that the real aim of the legislation is to sweep the streets of people some are uncomfortable seeing or meeting in public places. The mere threat of invoking the Safe Streets Act against an individual will presumably “move them along” to the extent that it could effectively create ‘no-go’ zones in certain parts of the city. It is well to remember that this legislation’s prime proponent is the business lobby.

Ontario has had this kind of legislation since 2000. A first run at challenging the constitutionality of the Ontario law was unsuccessful. That case has since been appealed and the decision should be released in the next few months. One aspect of the challenge deals with the Charter right to freedom of expression. There is no question that panhandling is expressive activity protected by the Charter. The question is whether a particular limitation on this kind of expression is justified in a free and democratic society, in which case, the limitation will be constitutional.

Courts have sometimes compared this sort of law to the regulation of commerce, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Asking for charity is not commerce. It is part of a more general right to appeal publicly for help, a right we take for granted whenever we ask someone on the street for directions or the time. It is cruelly insensitive to suppose that those of us who are not poor have a right to ask for assistance but those who need it most cannot. This is the sort of legal inequality that even a law that would prevent the rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges does not begin to approach.

The fact that it is absurd to think of this Act being invoked against a kindly veteran offering Remembrance Day poppies is a reminder of the real aim of the legislation, which is to prevent certain people from occupying public space. As we’ve seen with Vancouver’s panhandling bylaws, this law will undoubtedly be enforced in a discriminatory, legally-suspect way by private security. It’s designed to be applied in a discriminatory manner. And so, despite being aimed at “them”- who are among our most vulnerable citizens – it takes away from everyone’s rights in a free and democratic society. Give that some thought the next time you find yourself short of change for the bus and dependent on the kindness of strangers.