In an effort to ensure a peaceful demonstration against horse-drawn carriages in the Old Town Saturday, the Niagara Regional Police have negotiated an agreement between both sides that includes asking supporters to reschedule their gathering and recommending Sentineal Carriages keep their horses at home for the day.
For the first time in 30 years, Laura Sentineal said, there will be no horses on the busy corner of King and Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake Saturday afternoon.
“We were strongly advised not to have the horses there, by the Town administration and by the NRP, for the safety of the horses, our staff and the public. It could be a dangerous situation, and our horses are our first concern. We don't want to take any risks.”
An animal rights group called At War for Animals Niagara is advertising Saturday's protest as “Showdown in Old Town.” The group believes no animals should be used for work, and that the horses are suffering, while the Sentineal family and a large group of supporters say the opposition needs to be better informed, that the horses are treated well and are happier when they're working.
Saturday will be the second time the protesters will gather in NOTL to demonstrate against the horse-drawn carriages, and at least as many counter-protesters were expected to show up, but they have been asked by the police to stay away.
Supporters of Locals for Carriages, a group formed in response to the protesters, were planning to be in the Old Town Saturday to press their point, but by Friday morning were telling people the police have recommended it would be “in our best interest due to safety and liability concerns to reschedule our gathering to another day or cancel it altogether. This goes for both the supporters and carriages.”
If anyone does show up to support the horse-drawn carriages, organizers said, “please be wary that the protesters will be there and that what they are looking for is confrontation, to get into your head and to make you angry. Please avoid them as best you can to reduce the risk of any conflicts.”
Lord Mayor Pat Darte has been working with the NRP and both sides of the protest to keep Saturday's gathering “peaceful and respectful.”
Niagara Regional Police have been very clear about what behaviour is acceptable, and what they will do if there is any breech of the protocol they've set out, said Darte, and he believes both sides have “calmed down considerably.”
“I think the situation has been diffused, and with the horses not being there, will be even more so. The police have spoken to both groups and have let them know what to expect. I believe that's reduced the level of confrontation.”
Adam Stirr, organizer of the animal rights protest, said Friday he has agreed to the protocol set out by the NRP, including moving his group to the other side of Queen Street. The protesters will set up on King Street between Queen and Byron, and that stretch of King will be closed to traffic.
He said he is working from his end to ensure the event remains peaceful, including having some “anti-violence trainers” on hand to provide tips on how to reduce confrontation.
“When people try to confront us, we try to respond with kindness,” he said.
He is also working with police to make sure “no issue gets out of hand.”
Stirr said while he doesn't think anyone plans to incite violence, “any confrontation that becomes heated in nature has the potential to become violent. We just want to make sure members of the public are on the same page. We don't want to be confrontational, we don't want to argue. If someone tries to argue, we will disengage.”
Inspector Jim McCaffery of the NRP has spent much of his career negotiating peaceful protests, including General Motors and postal strikes, and in recent years, at Marineland.
The best way to diffuse a situation is to have counter-protests on different days, he said.
“Our concern is for public safety. Both protests are legal, but I think it's in the best interest to have the support group out on a separate day. We're taking as many steps as possible to make the protest as safe as possible, and the first step is to have different protests on different days.”
The NRP will be “well-represented” on Queen Street Saturday to ensure public safety, he said.
in addition to asking the counter-protesters to choose another day, he has set out some expectations for Saturday, “and so far, both groups are in agreement,” he said.
The protocol includes no use of bullhorns, no large, offensive posters, and no interaction between groups.
Protesters are also being asked not to disturb pedestrians and to be aware of traffic.
“The job of the police is to keep the peace,” said McCaffery. “We're not taking either side, we're just negotiating the best situation. Hopefully it will remain a good, peaceful situation.”
“How did we come to this?” asks Sentineal, who just wants to get back to business as usual.
“These people have completely escalated this situation to the point where we can't run our horse and carriages for the first time in 30 years. They have the right to protest. We all cherish this right. But they've been given free reign over everything they do and we've had to shut down our business.”
Sentineal says the supporters of her business are “wonderful people” and she's grateful for their support. They were also planning for a peaceful protest, she said, but after discussions with Darte and the NRP, she's not encouraging anybody to attend the Saturday demonstration.
“They've been told not to go down there – their safety and the safety of the horses can't be ensured. We strongly implore people not to oppose them (the animal rights activists) and not to talk to them. There's no point, and we don't want it to turn into a volatile situation. Sunday will be a new day, and we'll be back in business.”