Saskatoon mayor, doctor react to possibility of allowing alcohol in city parks

Mayor Charlie Clark cautions that any new policy won't happen quickly, and it won't be a "free-for-all."

Bryn Levy 4 minute read May 18, 2022

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark holds a press conference in front of City Hall about the provincial government introducing legislative amendments this week to allow cities to decide whether to allow alcohol consumption in parks. Michelle Berg / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark says any move to allow alcohol consumption in city parks is likely a long way off, after legislative amendments introduced this week by the provincial government.

“If it does pass, that will not mean that everybody can just grab a case of beer and go out to any park in the city,” Clark said Tuesday outside City Hall.

The province introduced amendments on Monday that would allow municipalities and park authorities to regulate consumption of alcohol in outdoor public places for people of legal drinking age. City council previously voted in December to have Clark write to the province asking for the change.

Clark said he appreciated the provincial government’s willingness to co-operate, but cautioned the amendments may take some time to pass at the provincial level, where they would need unanimous approval to be in place for this summer.

NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer has already said her party wants more consultation before agreeing to anything.

With that in mind, Clark said it’s probably not realistic to expect any change this summer, unless the provincial Opposition has a change of heart.

Clark noted the idea to allow alcohol in parks stemmed from trial runs in other cities, trying to give people more outdoor options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmonton and Calgary each ran pilot projects allowing people to drink at designated areas in parks, with rules against public intoxication and disruptive behaviour.

Calgary last week announced it’s renewing and expanding its program to allow the practice year-round, at more sites. Edmonton kicked off the second year of its program on May 1, also at more sites than last year.

While he used Calgary and Edmonton as examples, Clark said city council would have to decide on any details of a Saskatoon program. Anything that does come forward won’t be “a free-for-all,” he stressed.

Coun. Cynthia Block was behind the first motion to get city staff to look into how Saskatoon might accommodate alcohol in parks. She said she’s waiting to hear from people in her ward before considering any more motions to move the issue along.

Dr. Peter Butt, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine specializing in substance use disorders, said he hopes city officials think carefully about any decision.

Saskatchewan has already seen a rising number of people seeking help for alcohol dependency as rules and norms got more permissive during the pandemic — including the rise of home delivery, Butt said. City councillors — and consumers — shouldn’t lose sight of alcohol’s downsides, even if it is more socially accepted than other substances, he added.

“Alcohol, across the board in every jurisdiction, province by province, has more costs and harms attached to it than the problem with all illicit drugs and legal drugs combined,” Butt said, citing data from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Even when people do consider the harms, they often focus on issues around intoxication and overlook long-term risks, he said.

“Most people aren’t aware that alcohol is a carcinogen. If it was any other product, it would have warning labels on it. But the industry has been able to avoid that, thus far.”

Butt acknowledged most people in favour of alcohol in public parks likely want to enjoy a  “very civilized” drink in a beautiful riverside setting. However, he said policy-makers need to account for potential disruptions for other park users.

“Who’s going to regulate the people who aren’t self-regulating?”

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