Panhandler: Ottawa ban violates Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Tom Boland (
Sat, 24 Jul 1999 12:18:48 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  The Canadian Press - Thursday, July 22, 1999


     By SUE BAILEY -- The Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) -- On a frigid evening last December, with Christmas fast
approaching, Sean O'Neill crossed a social line that opened his eyes to
another world.

He sat down on a sidewalk along Ottawa's bustling Elgin Street and placed a
tuque before him.

The 42-year-old father of one was desperate for cash and for the first time
in his life, he begged for it.

"I was incredibly uneasy sitting there," said O'Neill, who has held more
than 40 jobs over the years.

;"I was also cold. I didn't want to look at anyone."

He collected $22 in five hours that night, moved into a men's shelter and
continued to panhandle for survival money -- not for alcohol or drugs, he
insisted in an interview.

Panhandling was humiliating, O'Neill added, until his first encounter with
a police officer. Begging is illegal in Ottawa under a 1991 bylaw.

Then his shame dissolved and outrage took its place.

"(The policeman) said this was his town and he was going to keep it clean,"
O'Neill recalled.

"If he found me there again, he'd get a court order and throw me in jail
and I wouldn't get to speak to a judge."

Today, the soft-spoken Winnipeg native is spearheading a constitutional

Like two other cases in Winnipeg and Vancouver, O'Neill's challenge centres
on whether a ban on begging violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ottawa's city bylaw, which makes it illegal for anyone "to beg or receive
alms," in public places is far too broad, said Mark Ertel, O'Neill's lawyer.

"It's killing flies with a sledgehammer," he said.

"People think the bylaw's directed at harassing, confrontational behaviour
-- which you certainly see sometimes on the street."

But the Criminal Code already covers such offences and this bylaw is
unnecessary, Ertel said.

O'Neill just seems to be the first to actually challenge it, he added.

"This time we're lucky enough to have a client who's very articulate and
it's hard to make guys like him go away."

Ertel, who hopes the case will begin next month, plans to argue Ottawa's
bylaw violates the Charter's guarantee of freedom of thought, belief and
expression, as well as the right to security of the person.

These bylaws, which are seen across Canada, represent a callous attack on
the poor, said Laurie Rektor, executive director of the National
Anti-Poverty Organization.

"They contribute to an increasingly hostile environment against poor
people," she said.

"The existence of such a bylaw says that somehow poor people are more of a
threat to society than other people."

Even the conservative Frasier Institute, a national economic and social
research agency, doesn't back an outright ban.

"That's unnecessarily draconian," said Patrick Basham, director of social

It's also a short-sighted approach to underlying social problems that need
long-term solutions, he added.

Katherine McKellar, spokeswoman for the Toronto Board of Trade, said a
delicate balance between the needs of society's vulnerable and the concerns
of others is needed.

A task force struck by the board is studying homelessness and how begging
affects businesses before it will take an official position.

"Some members have voiced concerns about how it makes Toronto look and how
it makes people feel about walking the streets," McKellar said.

O'Neill said he hopes the issue makes people uncomfortable.

He wants the public to think about the lack of resources available for
decent welfare cheques, education, and health care, he said.

Many have told him to just get a job.

But O'Neill refuses to accept another paycheque for work that he said will
force him to pollute the environment or tolerate inhumane conditions.

Instead, he said, he is working with people who can't navigate social
systems that are too often indifferent to their misery.

"There's a huge void there and I came across it. And once you go across
that bridge from sympathy to empathy, and you feel the pain those people
are living, you can't go back."


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