By Jeremy Appel
(ANNews) – Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA) is calling for enhanced restrictions on the sale of bear spray, a position echoed by Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi.
Marlene Orr, the CEO of Edmonton-based NCSA, told Alberta Native News that her call for tightened regulations is rooted in her work in the inner city, where she “had a lot of experience in working with people who had been robbed or assaulted or home and baited using bear spray.”
A couple of years ago, a woman came to NCSA’s offices to complain that bear spray, which is commonly sold at camping goods stores, as well as Canadian Tire and WalMart, is freely available at drug paraphernalia shops, which Orr says is a recipe for disaster.
Orr did her due diligence to see where the spray was being sold downtown and she found out the woman’s information was accurate.
“You can walk into drug paraphernalia stores and see pipes for methamphetamines, for crack cocaine, and sold beside them is bear spray and knives,” Orr said, adding that it sends a message akin to “here’s what you need to use illegal drugs and then here’s how you make the money to get your drugs.”
NCSA began raising this issue whenever it was able with the city, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) and provincial government.
And the city is listening. At council’s Feb. 7 community and public services committee meeting, Mayor Sohi called tighter restrictions on the sale of bear spray “common sense changes” for the city to make.
“This will not end up harming anyone, this will actually end up improving public safety and public places for people to enjoy,” he said.
The meeting heard from EPS officials, who requested council update its bylaw on the sale, and use of “oleoresin capsicum”— the chili pepper-based key ingredient in bear spray, dog spray and, of course, pepper spray.
Police presented a report to committee, which showed that the spray has been used or seized in double the incidents police and firefighters responded to than in 2015.
It’s already illegal for these sprays to be used against humans, but first responders have found it at transit stations and schools, rather than green spaces where wild animals could appear, suggesting it’s being used illegally.
The EPS asked council to make it a bylaw infraction to have bear spray with its safety removed or tampered, or have its label removed or concealed, a new nuisance offence for negligently using it in a public place, and consistent rules for businesses selling the product.
The committee asked city bureaucrats to incorporate these changes into updates underway to the public places and business licensing bylaws.
“As an agency, we were really pleased to see the city paying attention and actually working to gather statistics from the city police, and now looking at the development of a bylaw restricting its use,” Orr said.
“It’s not intended for use on people, but in this world today, it’s being used to commit violent offenses. And that’s an issue of community safety.”
She encourages other municipalities in the province to follow Edmonton’s lead in tightening restrictions.
The key issue for Orr is that the spray’s easy availability doesn’t treat it like the dangerous weapon it is.
“If you’re a hunter, you’re a trapper, you’re a hiker, then you should be able to access bear spray, but also have to register that you purchased it,” she said.
But Edmonton-based criminal defence lawyer Zack Elias told the Edmonton Journal he fears stricter bylaws will be just another weapon in the toolkit of authorities to target unhoused people, who might carry bear spray for self defence.
“What it’s going to be causing is the police to have an extra tool in their belt to be able to crack down on the homeless. They want to further criminalize the unhoused,” Elias said.
“What happens when they find bear spray (in an encampment)? It’s going to be some sort of ticket violation, it’s going to give them grounds to detain them … not because they were using it for any improper purpose.”
He pointed out the data the city heard didn’t indicate how often bear spray was being discharged, only that it was being found more frequently.
“They’re inflating these numbers and making it seem like people are getting attacked every day with bear spray,” he said. “Police need to leave creating laws to the legislature and focus on enforcing the laws, not try to create this fearmongering narrative that they’ve been doing in Edmonton.”
Orr said she doesn’t see how making it more difficult to acquire bear spray would negatively impact the safety of unhoused people.
“If there are issues about unhoused people feeling unsafe, then let’s deal with those issues as a city. But giving people illegal weapons to protect themselves doesn’t make anybody safe,” she said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.