The 15 worst things about Edmonton’s new public spaces bylaw

In January, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and city council declared a housing and homelessness emergency. The very first bylaw that city manager Andre Corbould has come back with since then is a Public Spaces Bylaw that not only further criminalizes and punishes the poor and the homeless, but brings in harsh restrictions on political protest.

University of Alberta political scientist David Kahane calls the proposed bylaw, which was written by unelected administrators, a “significant expansion of city control of behavior in public spaces,” adding that it would have “sweeping and dangerous implications for unhoused and poor people as well as for freedom of expression and assembly.” 

City council is set to debate this new bylaw on Feb. 14. If you’d like to speak about the bylaw at that city council meeting click here and follow these directions

Here are the 15 worst details in the Public Spaces Bylaw, organized into categories. 

No more being homeless and poor in public

1) Let’s begin with the worst aspect, a $500 fine for consuming illegal substances in public. Possession of illegal substances is still, wait for it, illegal, but the city has decided to add an extra $500 fine on top of it just to make sure that substance users know who’s really in charge (Chief Dale McFee and Andre Corbould). Needless to say, if you’re someone getting a $500 ticket for consuming drugs in public rather than in your garage or on your couch then you don’t have the money to pay the fine. 

2) The penalty for drinking alcohol in public, if the bylaw passes in its current form, will be bumped up to a $250 fine. Again, this is already illegal, and if a cop or peace officer catches drinking booze it will likely be confiscated and thrown away. Why add a $250 fine? 

3) Do you want to start a fire in a public space to stay warm because you have no home? That will be a $500 fine for lighting the fire, another $500 fine for leaving the fire unattended and another $500 fine for failing to extinguish the fire. Not sure those fines are going to help break the cycle of poverty that led to an unhoused person lighting a fire to keep warm in the first place.

4) Sleeping in your car because you’re homeless? If passed you could get a $250 fine if your car stays overnight in a park.

5) Are you riding the bus or train for too long, perhaps because it’s -30C outside and you’re homeless? It’s now a $250 fine to be on the bus if it goes by the same stop twice. It’s also now a $250 fine if you’re in a transit station longer than it takes to wait for the next vehicle on a specific route to enter and exit that station. The power to issue this ticket will unlikely be used against old friends catching up on a train station platform and not getting on the train. It’s clearly intended for unhoused people trying to stay warm. 

6) It will be a $250 fine to panhandle on a road, a roadway median, or a boulevard next to a road. The next time you see someone panhandling at an intersection make sure to give them an extra $250 on top of what you were going to give to them to cover the fine. 

7) Are you homeless and want to set up a tent on public property? That’s a $250 fine. Do you have the temerity to actually occupy that tent after setting it up? That’s another $250 fine. 

8) The old bylaw forbade spitting on public transit. The expanded Public Spaces bylaw makes it a $250 fine to spit in any public space. No more clearing your throat and hawking a loogie anywhere that isn’t your property, bub. 

“With a bylaw like this we just end up incarcerating the homeless, which is a terrible use of money,” says Ian Runkle, an Edmonton based criminal defense lawyer and legal commentator. 

The site of the former encampment at Rowland Road and 95 Street is pictured from before it was violently taken down by the Edmonton Police Service in early January, 2024.

Crackdown on protests

9) The proposed bylaw gives peace officers and cops new ways to shut down and harass protesters. Sound amplification systems are not to be used in public anymore unless you have a license, or it will be a $250 fine. Similar bylaws have been used to target political protests. In December 2023, Ottawa cops issued three $490 tickets to people in a march organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement for using loudspeakers in a public place.

10) Any type of large gathering where you stand in front of or obstruct an entrance to a building—such as a picket line—could  land participants a $250 fine. It’s worth noting in this context that  City of Edmonton workers might be going on strike soon.

11) Any type of obstruction of pedestrians from using public space for its intended purpose is now a $250 fine. This one is incredibly overbroad and could be used on essentially anyone, but homeless people and protesters are the most likely targets. 

12) Remember to tell your toddlers noodling around at the playground with sidewalk chalk that what they’re doing is illegal. Any marking made by any means on any public space is now illegal and will net you a $250 fine. 

None of us like the street preacher guy, but giving cops more discretion to crack down on politically unpopular protests means police will just crack down more on politically unpopular protests. The bylaws as they exist aren’t consistently enforced, remember the trucker protests? These bylaws will only be used against protests that cops and the powers that be don’t agree with. 

Judy Garber, a professor emeritus at University of Alberta and expert on urban politics, cautions that the proposed bylaw “promises years of legal action to settle the constitutionality of its sweeping regulation of dozens of taken-for-granted elements of free expression.” Garber called the new Public Spaces Bylaw the “poster child of a troubling, poorly conceived government action.” 

In an interview with CTV, Councillor Tim Cartmell brushed off the seriousness of the bylaw’s penalties, arguing that it’s only a ticket.

Garber responds that “this elected official misunderstands that [the charter] applies even to tickets, even to municipal bylaws, and certainly to the underlying freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly that would trigger government regulation.”

The outright bizarre 

13) It’s now a $250 fine for riding your bike on the grass in a city park. Don’t you dare think of going off the path. 

14) Riding your bike on the sidewalk has been bumped up to a $250 fine as well. The only safe place to bike in many parts of car-dependent Edmonton is on the sidewalk, but it’s unlikely this ticket gets handed out in suburban Edmonton.

15) It’s a $500 fine if you use or visibly possess a utility or hunting knife in public.

“This is idiotic. It’s only going to get enforced against the poor,” said Runkle. “They could arrest nearly everyone on a construction site for this but these laws aren’t intended to be applied equally. A lot of homeless people get arrested for having knives for basic eating food purposes. These people don’t have a knife block at home. If they need to eat an apple or cut up some food they just have a knife in their pocket.”  

Ways to push back

The Tawâw Outreach Collective, an Indigenous-led harm reduction outreach group, is asking people to speak out against the anti-poor measures in the proposed bylaw, arguing it “will create harmful changes that further frame poor people’s existence as a threat to public safety.” 

“The proposed bylaw would support increased surveillance and enforcement, and amp up police power. Bylaw Officers, peace officers, and police will have more ways to interfere with poor people’s lives.” 

Prof. Kahane similarly urged “citizens and civil society organizations” to express their opposition to the proposed bylaw, calling it a “ wishlist for police and unelected officials who want to come down hard on poor and houseless people.” 

“Our city already tries to sweep away visible symptoms of houselessness, poverty and drug use.  This is cruel, puts people in greater danger, betrays commitments to reconciliation, and does nothing to address root causes. The Public Spaces Bylaw will make things worse,” Kahane cautioned.

People can sign up to speak about the Bylaw at the February 14 Council meeting, which will likely be online, as city hall remains closed to the public. 

When completing the form, put ‘City Council’ as the “type of meeting” and ‘6.1 Bylaw 20700 - Public Spaces Bylaw’ as the “agenda number and title.” You can also phone or email your City Councillor ahead of the February Council meeting.