The Case for Allowing Drinking in Calgary’s Public Parks

Why the right to enjoy a beer or glass of wine in an outdoor space shouldn’t just be the domain of those lucky enough to have a private backyard.

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

Now, more than a year into the pandemic, is the time to start drinking in public. Or rather, the time to start allowing drinking in public.

Two years ago, before a proposed pilot project to allow liquor consumption at municipal picnic sites, the City’s department of Parks & Pathways conducted an online survey on the subject. More than 15,000 respondents generated 2,151 pages of comments. Only a small majority of respondents favoured changing the law. The City scrapped, or at least postponed the pilot program, ostensibly to more fully understand the deluge of commentary.

At the very least, they should’ve passed a law permitting the poor staffers tasked with reading and compiling all those responses to drink wherever and whenever they want.

But now it seems the pandemic has granted us new opportunity to change the laws against public drinking — this past spring council voted 12 to 2 in favour of a new drinking-at-picnic-sites pilot project. From June to the beginning of September, Calgarians will be able to drink alcohol at approximately 30 approved picnic tables throughout the city, for up to two hours at a time, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

It’s a good start.

The laws in Calgary around public drinking are problematic for a myriad of reasons. First, they don’t actually effectively dissuade most people from drinking in public. Instead, they force citizens to conceal their drinking, as if consuming a legal substance in public is shameful.

The same adult drinking the same amount of the same beverage in a public space, rather than in a private space, either indoors or out, is somehow a problem. Simply put, this defies logic.

Curtis Mah wasn’t harming anyone in July 2020, when bylaw officials ticketed him for drinking a beer near the Elbow River on one of the hottest days of the summer. Notably, it was a time when health authorities were advising Calgarians to social distance and many people were leery of bars and indoor dining rooms.

The $120 ticket hardly dissuaded Mah. Later that same week, Mah and a buddy bought what he describes as “discrete cups off the Internet” to conceal their beer. They also found a spot on the Bow River where they could better see approaching bylaw officers. “It was 35 degrees out. You can’t go anywhere. And we have these beautiful rivers,” Mah said.

Intentionally or not, the current regulations discriminate between Calgarians with their own private outdoor space, and those without. The civilized pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine with a picnic, or a cold beer with your barbecue, is the sole privilege of the deck-and-yard crowd. Such a policy reflects our conceit that home ownership is a form of virtue. But public parks should be considered our shared backyards — and we should be allowed to use them as such.

The current law against public drinking brands outdoor drinkers like Mah (and myself) criminals the moment our lips touch the beer can or the wine flows into the glass, whether for our first sip or our 40th, even though the simple act of drinking harms no one. Laws against public drunkenness already exist. But these, too, are similarly problematic. There is no breath test for “drunkenness” after all. No defined blood-alcohol concentration that renders someone a nuisance. The law asks individual officials to interpret when someone’s level of consumption is criminal. This discretionary application of a law carries its own problems, of course. I suspect people who look like me (i.e. white) receive far fewer drunkenness citations than those who don’t.

Mah wonders if our nonsensical drinking laws can be blamed on the number of teetotallers on City Council, or the fact that few, if any, on council live in apartments. I am not so sure. For every non-drinker like Naheed Nenshi and Sean Chu, there’s a Joe Magliocca whose “hosting” receipts indicate an appreciation for Grey Goose. And the laws didn’t budge under Rum-and-Coke Ralph Klein, anyway.

Last year, to support licenced businesses, the Province allowed bars and restaurants to sell alcohol, including canned and bottled cocktails, as part of takeout and delivery orders. Calgarians loved the new policies. Who wouldn’t enjoy beers delivered with their pizza, or a bottle of takeout barrel-aged Boulevardier cocktail? The Province also allowed drinking at approved public campsites and picnic sites as of June 2020.

These rule changes did not cause society to collapse, just as allowing children into pubs, breweries and beer gardens did not shatter families. My son took his first steps in a beer garden at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Farmers’ Market, although his mother often denies it. Our laws should trust citizens to be responsible and treat adults like adults.

The prohibition against public drinking aims to solve a problem that does not exist.

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This article appears in the July 2021 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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