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British Columbia Anti-poverty group cautions Prince George, B.C. against bylaw meant to cut down on police calls

Prince George, B.C., is shown from Highway 16, on Oct. 8, 2012.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A city in northern British Columbia is considering a bylaw that would charge landlords of properties where tenants make repeated calls to 911 – a measure that an anti-poverty group describes as "dangerous" and potentially unconstitutional.

A councillor in Prince George has proposed a bylaw that would charge an hourly rate for police services, as well as the costs of fire department and city staff. The city would join other communities in B.C. with similar penalties targeting problem landlords, in addition to so-called "good neighbour" bylaws in cities across the country.

The Prince George proposal was prompted by the closing of the Connaught Motor Inn, a small hotel that had its business licence suspended in the spring of 2016. At the time of the suspension, the local RCMP detachment said it had been called to the building about 750 times since 2012, often for assaults, alcohol-related calls, prostitution and drug dealing.

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Mayor Lyn Hall, who supports the proposed bylaw, said the intent is to go after prolific offenders. He said such calls cost thousands of dollars, putting a strain on the city's budget.

"Some of these calls and the nature of them is police attendance to drug activity and police are called multiple times to the same residence," he said. "If the police are called, more often than not, then so are first responders like fire or ambulance services."

Mr. Hall said the bylaw would include provisions to ensure that no one is dissuaded from making necessary calls to the police.

Pivot Legal Society, an anti-poverty group based in Vancouver, argues the bylaw infringes on Charter rights and warns it will discourage drug users – who often require multiple visits from emergency medical services – victims of domestic violence and people with mental-heath issues from calling the police. Pivot warns charges levied by the city will likely be pushed on to tenants, forcing such vulnerable people to choose between calling for help or risking fines and eviction.

Pivot recently sent a letter to Prince George's mayor outlining its concerns.

"That fear of getting a fine or getting into trouble with your landlord will deter people from calling 911 and that's particularly dangerous," said Caitlin Shane, a community lawyer with the group.

"People shouldn't under any circumstances be deterred from calling emergency assistance when they need it."

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In a subsequent letter to the city, the group warns B.C tenancy law does not protect tenants from being evicted by landlords for incurring fees. Pivot also argues the bylaw runs counter to federal and provincial efforts to encourage drug-users suffering an overdose to call 911.

Several jurisdictions in B.C., including Nanaimo and Kamloops, have adopted similar bylaws to combat illegal activity and recover costs associated with frequent RCMP visits. The community of Kipling, Sask., also has a similar bylaw. Other cities use so-called "good neighbour" bylaws to target bad behaviour such as noise or littering. In Ontario, Toronto and Guelph both have such bylaws in place.

Nanaimo adopted its bylaw in 2003 in response to complaints about buildings harbouring drug dealers. The city charges an hourly rate for RCMP, city staff and fire services.

Councillor Gordon Fueller said the Nanaimo bylaw was applied about twice last year. The city slapped a nuisance-property designation on two townhouses following complaints that included assaults and noise.

"If RCMP are called to a house or a property on an ongoing basis, then we would review the reasons for them being called there," Mr. Fueller said.

More recently, Kamloops adopted a nuisance property bylaw last November to target properties that are the site of repeated police calls.

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Pivot hopes Prince George council rejects the proposed bylaw, which the group says is open to constitutional challenge. The bylaw, which passed its first three readings on Jan. 8, will be before council for its final reading on Feb. 5.

"The fact of it being possibly unconstitutional is enough to make it not worth passing," Ms. Shane said.

"It doesn't matter how it gets played out or how it is enacted, what matters is that it's unconstitutional at its base."

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