The Town is doing what it can to help the horse and carriage business, and to mitigate the impact of protesters on businesses and residents, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
She says she understands the frustration of those who would like to see some controls in place regarding the protesters, and councillors are also frustrated that they haven’t been able to do more to help.
The Town has been looking at all of the possibilities, she adds, and is in the process of drafting an easement agreement that would provide a buffer zone around the horses and carriages when they’re parked on King Street, outside the Prince of Wales Hotel.
There is also some work being done to connect cameras at the intersection of King and Queen Streets, that will help the Niagara Regional Police monitor the activities at the corner where both the protesters and the supporters take up their positions.
Coun. Sandra O’Connor, sworn in Monday, has initiated attempts with the Crown Attorney’s office to discuss the possibilities of charges being laid, Disero says, but that has been difficult to arrange, with offices closed during the pandemic.
“We’re trying to get anyone we can to help,” says Disero.
She did not attend Sunday’s protest, and she wrote to all members of council asking them not to, she says, on the advice of the NRP and the Town’s legal counsel.
She was told the rally was being organized in memory of Regan Russell, a 65-year-old animal rights activist, who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in June while protesting the treatment of pigs at a Burlington slaughterhouse.
“Yesterday’s issue was far bigger than being against the carriages,” she says of Sunday’s protest.
“It was an escalated fight between two polarized groups, using the tragic fatality of a woman to try to make a point. I don’t believe it was appropriate for me or any member of council to be there. I don’t believe we should be taking this poor woman’s fatal accident on one side or another. I don’t believe it’s an issue NOTL councillors or residents should be commenting on. I can only say a fatal accident occurred, and we send our condolences to the family and friends of Regan Russell.”
The protesters, representatives of At War For Animals Niagara, campaign against “speciesism,” or objectifying animals by humans who use the animals for their own purposes, including pulling carriages. They have promised they will continue their protests in town until the horse-drawn carriage business ceases operation.
But on Sunday they said they were also there to “restore justice” to Regan Russell’s name, protesting some comments they say were made by the Locals for Carriages group about her death.
Disero says although she knew the event was taking place, she thought the protesters were going to stand on the sidewalk outside Simcoe Park, which they are allowed to do.
They did not have permission to use the park or the amphitheater, or to close off the street, and if they do that again, she says, they will need a permit, and will have to pay for police presence.
Jennifer Jones-Butski, organizer of the Locals for Carriages group, wrote to town council last week saying she was representing concerned residents of NOTL. Sunday’s group, also concerned residents, she says, were there to protest the Town and the Niagara Regional Police, not the protesters.
“The lack of action on the part of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Regional Police has created an unjust and dangerous situation. If we are unable to inspire the necessary conversation and subsequent legislative changes, we are prepared to exhaust all legal means required to end the injustice described herein,” the letter says, detailing alleged incidents of “harassment, terrified and traumatized workers, horrified and intimidated patrons, clashes with families and a peaceful street corner that is no longer safe.”
The letter says the Town and police “are both complicit in this injustice and therefore liable for the resulting damages incurred by countless businesses and individuals.”
Disero says there have been ongoing discussions “about our right as a municipality to protect our businesses, residents and public safety,” although some behind closed doors, with details that can’t be reported to the public.
She spoke of frustration felt by members of council, residents, Locals for Carriages, the Sentineal family carriage owners, other businesses, “by everybody. I wish I had a magic wand. This isn’t the impression we want to give to the outside world.”
Disero says as much as she supports the Locals for Carriages group, she wishes they would work with the Town, to fight a fight they can win.
With two sides fighting each other, as they did Sunday, she says, “nobody won anything. It just caused more pain for the family of Regan Russell, and made more people angry.”
She believes there is “absolutely” a way to win, and it doesn’t involve “unintentionally handing the protesters a stage and a microphone. That’s not a fight you can win.”