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Charter question raised over city’s banner policy

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
March 31st, 2019

The city will be conducting a Charter of Rights and Freedoms investigation on banner usage after a simple policy amendment raised some serious questions about its practice.

A debate on whether the city had the right to allow a certain banner to be hung on Baker Street — a service the city provides to eligible community group events — erupted after a request to amend the Community Flag and Street Banner Policy was made in council’s regular meeting recently.

There was a banner hung on Baker Street in the past that Coun. Brittny Anderson felt “violated” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She explained that the “pro life banner” ran contrary to the city’s banner policy as well as the Charter as it infringed on the rights of others.

City manager Kevin Cormack said that city staff approved the banner and felt the group was allowed “to have their values and what they believed in” contained in the banner under the city’s policy.

“But if council is concerned we could go out and get a legal opinion on that,” he iterated.

Anderson said she understood the freedom of speech argument in the group’s favour.

“But I believe we need to uphold the sexual and reproductive rights of women who this is essentially affecting,” she said.

She agreed with Cormack that a legal opinion on the matter would need to be sought.

The fact that a banner with such an oppositional view — and not an events-based banner — was placed above Baker Street was confusing and unsettling for Coun. Jesse Woodward.

The prominent banner placement in general sent a message that the city approved of whatever rode above the city’s main street, he said.

“It’s basically saying that ‘As a city, we are okay with this and that we are supportive of this,’” he said. “It’s an endorsement.

“As an individual I find it quite confusing because this particular group is oppositional to another group.”

He said that intent clearly went against the city’s banner policy.

“I think a group is allowed to express their view of the world,” explained Cormack, “which may be different than someone else’s view of the world.”

The banner space on Baker was also seen as a prominent place that could communicate the city’s message, instead of promoting community events, according to Coun. Rik Logtenberg.

“It’s such a prominent spot,” he said. “For many people it’s their first experience of Baker Street and of Nelson.

“We should consider it as something just the city uses then it removes this issue of competition of whether we should put their banner up or whether we shouldn’t.”

The city raised community banners in 19 of 52 weeks in 2018.  Cormack suggested the city could, if council wished, raise its own communicative banner on the other remaining weeks outside of community events.

The banners were not meant to be an endorsement of any group, they were meant to be advertisements for community events, he pointed out. 

“You have to look at it like council isn’t there to make a judgement on any particular group,” but as long as it met the Charter it would be okay to raise it, Cormack added.

Logtenberg said the city could maybe find an alternate spot for the community banners that was not on Baker Street.

The idea did not gain much traction throughout council, though. Coun. Janice Morrison thought the city had plenty of avenues of communication open to it, that it need not divest city groups of the banner location.

“If community groups feel that the banner is important to them I don’t want to deprive them of that opportunity,” she said. “I don’t see it as the gateway sign to Nelson. What I would like to see is us not being in violation of the Charter. I think that is key.”

The policy amendment to remove the Civic Centre Building (Vernon Street) as a location option for hanging community banners, and keep all hung banners to Baker Street, was passed.

However, directly after the vote, Anderson put forth a motion to direct city staff to make sure the banner policy was not infringing on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that the city explore language to “ensure that the banners are inclusive.”

Mayor John Dooley said the result of the debate was the city now needed to know if the banner policy was going to allow putting the pro life banner on Baker Street.

Anderson agreed.

“We want to know if, in practice, we are following the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she said.

The motion was passed.

A banner move

Nelson Fire and Rescue Services is responsible for hanging community banners on Baker Street and at the Civic Centre Building. 

In the past the fire department was able to use ground ladders to hang the banners on the Civic Centre building. However, in order to comply with WorkSafe BC regulations the fire department is required to install engineered bolts and a cable fall restraint system or use the ladder truck to hang the banners at the Civic Centre building. 

“There has also been a change to angle parking along Vernon Street at this location and the ladder truck must close off west bound Vernon and a crosswalk to hang the banner,” noted a city staff report to council.

In 2018, there was only $100 in revenue raised.

— Source: City of Nelson


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