Town council is looking at ways to ensure horse carriage protests don’t get overheated this summer.
During Monday’s committee of the whole meeting, Lord Mayor Betty Disero said the town wants to ensure protesters don’t get too close to the horse carriages.
“I’m supportive of the horse and carriage,” Disero said. “But my biggest concern is my fear of a heated summer with yelling back and forth could escalate. And I want to try to also find some protection, so that the protesters don’t get so close to the horses that in fact one gets spooked and who knows what could happen at that point,” she told councillors.
One idea is for the town to make a formal encroachment or lease for the space where the carriages operate, “just so that there is a buffer between the horses and the protesters of some degree,” said Disero.
“It may or may not be enough. But that would give the carriage operators an exclusive use. So, it would at least allow them some security and protection.”
Other options were de-escalation training for councillors and carriage operators, specific to public protest, and the possibility of delegating an area of town where protest is allowed.
Disero said since a formal agreement between protesters and carriage operators ended because one party wouldn’t sign it, the confrontations have escalated.
The result is “major yelling and screaming and destruction of businesses on the Queen Street area,” Disero said.
Disero asked if Couns. Clare Cameron and Wendy Cheropita would represent her on the issue.
Both declined, saying they didn’t know enough about it.
However Coun. Erwin Wiens offered help, given that he has background in policing.
Coun. Gary Burroughs, who said he got into a conflict with protesters on Sunday, suggested using the town’s noise bylaw to charge protesters for unruly behaviour.
He said the de-escalation option might have been helpful for him.
“I kind of wished number two had been before yesterday, when I had a bit of a confrontation with the protesters. I could have used some de-escalation education,” Burroughs said.
“It would be nice if they could cut down the noise on it. And they came back very quickly saying that the Charter of Rights circumvents or overpowers any noise bylaw that we might have. And I assumed they seem to know what they’re doing, so I got legal advice after that and apparently that’s not true.”
He encouraged staff to check what the rules are regarding the Charter of Rights.
He said he was a bit embarassed about getting into an argument with the protesters.
“First of all, I’m supportive of the horse and carriage, a little upset that I got dragged into an argument, and went and apologized to the horse and carriage people afterward,” he said.
Coun. Norm Arsenault said he has looked at the Charter of Rights regarding the issue.
“It is quite a strong charter, and rightfully so. But it is not an absolute right of protest,” he said.
He encouraged the town to look at other cases, such as the Town of Fort Erie vs. activist Fred Bracken, to see what can be done.
“The protesters have become considerably more aggressive,” Arsenault said, suggesting that the town look into options for a designated spot for protest.
“I believe it is within the jurisdiction of the municipality, that we can actually assign a specific area where (protest) can be had peacefully. Having said that, I would like staff to look at the legalities of actually assigning a specific spot, not necessarily on Queen Street — it could be anywhere in Niagara-on-the-Lake — with a specific spot protesters can legally protest, without interfering with the livelihood, and the peace and tranquillity of the residents.”
Arsenault also suggested the town get expert legal advice on what it can do.
Cheropita agreed that the town should seek legal advice, and spoke out against the protesters, saying something needs to be done.
“I think this weekend sort of proved and showed another level of protests,” she said.
“I, like councillor Burroughs, was there on Queen Street at the time when the protesters were going by. And although I know they have the right to do this, this is no longer peaceful protest — the protesters are aggressive, they’re vulgar, and they are loud. And there’s seems to be no end in sight.”
She said her biggest concern is that visitors and residents are being scared away.
“And what I’m very afraid of is that they’re going to affect people who are going to stop coming here, because they’re afraid of these protesters, because that’s the stuff that I heard, people walking away saying, ‘I will never come here again because of these rude, ignorant people. They’re scaring my children, I’m afraid of them’ — and that’s also happening with locals.”
She said council needs to find a solution, “because this is no longer acceptable.”
Interim CAO Sheldon Randall said the town has been working closely with police.
“And the police are committed, that if anybody behaves unlawful, or does anything that would constitute as a crime, they will arrest them. They promised that. Everything that they’ve observed, all the police reports that have been filed to date, they have not been able to lay a charge,” he said.
“So I just want everyone to understand that the police are very active, very involved, and they have committed to us, the town, that if there’s anything that’s a chargeable offence, on either side, with the protesters or the operators, that they are committed to the charges,” Randall said.