With horse and carriage protesters taking advantage of the busiest corner in town during one of the hottest summers on record, and the fear discussions will become even more heated than they have been, town councillors are talking about what can be done to keep everyone safe.
At a discussion about the options at last week’s council meeting, one of the suggestions put forward by Lord Mayor Betty Disero was to look at creating a buffer around the area on King Street where drivers line up with their horses and carriages. She’d like to give them exclusive use of that space and a feeling of safety and protection.
Disero also asked staff to look at setting up a session on defusing or de-escalating difficult situations related to public protests, to help members of council, and horse and carriage operators should they be interested.
The third suggestion was to develop a new protocol that would set out an agreement from those involved, including the protesters, the horse and carriage companies, and the Town.
On July 24, the Niagara Regional Police posted a plea on their website, saying they were “taking the unprecedented step to publicly request all sides to enter into meaningful discussions and negotiations that speak to the core issues of the dispute, and find some resolution.”
As background, the NRP request explained, an animal rights group began protesting the use of horse-drawn carriages in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2017. “In the three years, counter protesters supporting the horse-drawn carriage businesses have also become involved in protests, the opposing groups ultimately both expressing their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to lawfully peaceful assembly and protest,” the news release says.
The duty of the police “is to remain neutral and maintain public peace and safety.”
The police are continually monitoring the situation, and their efforts have not led to charges of any kind. “There have been many reports, police calls for service, meetings, along with investigations resulting in cautions, and also officer discretion for both sides. We have reviewed the applicable case laws as they apply to peaceful assembly, and sought legal counsel from the office of the local Crown Attorney.”
The police have taken part in the negotiation “of two good faith protest guidelines to date, one in 2018 and another in 2019. While not legally binding, the guidelines brought all sides together to establish a framework for peaceful protest and behaviour. The 2019 protocol ultimately went unsigned by some of the parties involved.
“Our officers will continue to do their duty as it relates to all parties involved in the ongoing dispute over animal rights and the carriage businesses in NOTL,” says Inspector James McCaffery in the NRP release. “We will maintain our neutrality and continue to manage the situation using discretion, education, and where required, enforcement. We will continue to avail ourselves to both sides for discussion, as the maintaining of the public peace and safety for all those involved and the community remains paramount to our officers.”
With their request for discussions and negotiation, the police are looking for “a resolution that will be agreeable for both sides, the community of NOTL, and its many visitors.”
At last week’s council meeting, all three of Disero’s motions were approved.
Laura Sentineal, attending the virtual council meeting, thanked councillors for their support, and for their efforts to make the corner on King and Queen Street a safer, more peaceful place for her horses and drivers.
Sentineal, who with her husband Fred and family operates Sentineal Carriages, says she would be happy to have some distance around their pathway, where they line up, to keep the protesters at a distance.
That space, she says, is the horses’ “safe, relaxing, happy place to be. To keep the protesters out of their space would certainly be advantageous.”
It was good of Disero to include Sentineal staff in her offer of resolution training, she added.
She also said she would be willing to discuss another protocol.
She signed the first agreement, but last year, had hired a lawyer to help the business through the protests, who suggested she shouldn’t sign it.
“I agreed to it verbally, but I didn’t feel comfortable signing it,” she told The Local.
However, she said she would take part in any discussions about a protocol if the Town and the police feel it could help resolve some of the recurring issues.
“I’m happy to cooperate with whatever the Town and police feel is constructive and helpful.”
She has developed her own company protocol, she said.
“We don’t engage with the protesters. We’re just going out there and doing our job.”
What really pleased her about the discussion amongst councillors, she said, was the request for staff to have a look at the options and rights of the municipality.
During recent years of discussions, town representatives have been told there was little they could do, with the right to peacefully protest enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, as Coun. Norm Arsenault pointed out, “the Charter of Rights is strong, and rightly so, but it is not an absolute right to protest.”
Several councillors agreed it should be within the jurisdiction of the municipality to assign a specific area for a protest, without interfering with the livelihood of the horse and carriage companies, and asked staff to seek legal advice to determine the rights of the municipality.