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George Muggleton plays the bagpipes along Sparks st. in Ottawa on Monday July 12, 2004. Earlier in the day George was asked to leave the Byward Market because of noise complaints. (Tobin Grimshaw/Tobin Grimshaw/The Globe and Mail)
George Muggleton plays the bagpipes along Sparks st. in Ottawa on Monday July 12, 2004. Earlier in the day George was asked to leave the Byward Market because of noise complaints. (Tobin Grimshaw/Tobin Grimshaw/The Globe and Mail)

Busking

Vancouver's bagpipe ban prompts outcry Add to ...

A few weeks ago, Kyle Banta was eager to pick up his bagpipes and go busking again in central Vancouver.

For two straight summers, the 22-year-old has been playing on city sidewalks, earning spending money, trying out his own compositions and winning approval from members of the public charmed by the pipe sounds. Some would ask when he would be back. At times, he would make $100 a day.

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So Mr. Banta says he was surprised to see on the city website that bagpipe busking was to be banned by Vancouver’s engineering department due to noise concerns – part of a ban that also covered percussion instruments.

“I was quite disappointed because my favorite thing is to play pipes,” said Mr. Banta, describing a decision implemented in a “sleek, quiet way.” He said calls to the engineering department seeking clarification were not returned.

But the unusually specific ban, which hit a few bagpiping buskers in Vancouver, has run into opposition from one of the city’s top Scots.

That would be Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was sworn in for a second term wearing a kilt in reflection of his Scottish heritage.

The mayor has been known to play the tuba, but is prepared to go the wall for bagpipers.

He’s mindful of noise complaints, but says the ban brought about by the city engineering department will face opposition from city council, dominated by Mr. Robertson’s Vision Vancouver party. The ban is under review.

“My first reaction is that a complete ban on bagpipes and percussion instruments across the city is ridiculous and culturally insensitive,” Mr. Robertson said in a statement.

“The clans won’t stand for it.”

The last line was a bit of a joke, but Mr. Robertson is serious about taking on a ban that has been the talk of the piping community.

Jack Lee, the pipe sergeant of the six-time world champion Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, is outraged.

“To ban bagpipes is so short-sighted – one of the great instruments of the world, and one of the oldest instruments of the world,” said Mr. Lee

“Bagpipes are not really that loud. When my next-door neighbour starts his lawnmower, it’s far louder than I would be if I blew my bagpipes up.

“It brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.”

Rob MacNeil, president of the B.C. Pipers Association, recalls an incident in 1943 where a piping busker was arrested by a Vancouver police officer over opposition to his playing, and then jailed for six months until he was cleared by a court ruling that also brought about $150 in compensation.

But Mr. MacNeil, who has been playing the pipes since he was 10 years old, said he has never heard of such a ban elsewhere in Canada.

“I think it should be reversed. I’ve seen busking in so many cities around the world. When it’s done properly so it basically respects the instrument, and the national dress and the audiences and the [surrounding]businesses, it is a valuable thing, and a lot of people like to see the entertainment that pipers can provide,” he said.

Andrew Berthoff, the Toronto-based editor of Pipes/Drums magazine, said he has vaguely heard of noise-related bans in Britain, but never in Canada.

“Canada has some of the best pipers in the world and, probably per capita a better quality on average – more talented pipers than you would hear perhaps anywhere,” he said.

Mr. Berthoff, who busked in Edinburgh about 25 years ago recalled the routine as a great way to practise. Some Scots hated the noise, he recalls, but most liked it.

Mr. Banta also busked in Scotland. He says he got a better reaction in Vancouver than in the Scottish city of Stirling, where he recalls people were a bit more blasé about the sounds of the pipes.

Now he’s hoping to play again in Vancouver. He’s a competitive player, and he also plays in classrooms and concerts, but says there was something special to sidewalk playing.

“For me, the mature and responsible thing to do is wait and hope the bylaw is changed, and the ban is lifted because I do believe it was a wrong move for the city,” he said. “All I can really do is wait.”

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