Critique of the NCC's Animal Regulations
Previous NCC regulations adopted and employed the local municipality regulations (Public Consultation Report, Spring 2001, pages 4-6 and Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, Canada Gazette, Part II, Vol 136, No. 10, page 1040). Thus, within the former boundaries of the City of Ottawa, dogs could play off-leash, "under control", on NCC lands unless they were a beach, picnic area or campsite.
According to the NCC, the proposal for new regulations came about because:
- "conflicts between domestic animals and their owners and other users were mounting."
- "more and more people were bringing their domestic animals onto NCC property."
- increasing numbers of diverse complaints.
The NCC claimed that in 1999, there were 230 warnings to persons with "domestic animals" on the Rideau Canal Skateway (irrelevant to parks) and "595 incidents" throughout the National Capital Region, rural and urban. The latter reportedly ranged from non-removal of excrement to chasing wildlife (Canada Gazette, 8 May 02, pages 1041-43).
The NCC's Public Consultation
The NCC's Public Consultation consisted of two open houses in November 1999. Sixty persons attended the open house in Hull and 1000 persons attended in Ottawa. NCC staff handed out brochures and questionnaires.
Anyone with political experience will very quickly appreciate that, when a 1000 people turn up on a miserable November evening, the proposal before the public is hotly (and predictably) controversial and may well merit careful reconsideration. (This remains true today.) Those with successful public consultation experience would also point out that what was clearly lacking, and perhaps evaded, was a public meeting where, as would be customary, members of the public could receive answers from and express their views to commissioners and senior officials. Moreover, there would be a need for a second such public meeting to discuss a proposal, revised in light of the first meeting and well-publicized in advance.
The Commission also organized two focus groups, one on each side of the Ottawa River, composed of "dog owners and other users of NCC property" with "varying interests and points of view." They each met once and in private, although the Commission considered these meetings as part of its "public consultation." Significantly, the Ontario focus group specified its top concern as the lack of various off-leash approaches, such as time-sharing in parks (Public Consultation Report, Annex 2, page 6).
A Public Consultation Report was finally released in spring 2001. It was seriously flawed as it failed to provide essential information, such as:
- How many of the 595 "incidents" were serious?
- What were they?
- Where did they occur?
Lacking this information, how can anyone know where and what, if any, corrective action is needed? To place the NCC's "problem" into a belated perspective, for the first six months of 2002, "calls for service" involving animals in the new City of Ottawa numbered 5,005.
Not surprisingly, the necessary public consensus has failed to develop and, consequently, some of the regulations will prove unenforceable and attempts to enforce them may embarrass the Commission.
The NCC's initial objectives and guiding principles
The Public Consultation Report stated that the "NCC initiated continuing dialogue with input from representatives of the pro off-leash groups .. balanced with input from representatives .. (with) other viewpoints to ensure a solution that would satisfy as many stakeholders as possible without compromising the NCC's initial objectives and guiding principles."
In the light of subsequent events, these formulaic phrases provoke justifiable cynicism. Moreover, they underline that the Commission or its staff held its initial objectives and guiding principles sacrosanct, whatever the interested public might say.
While the objectives and some of the guiding principles are appropriate, some of the latter reflect an anti-pet bias or are inane. For example, "Domestic animals would have no, or only minimal, impact on human health, human safety, visitor experience and the environment." (Public Consultation Report, page 7.) That, of course, is demonstrably silly because pet inoculations and medical check-ups are usually up to date and the impact of pets on their human companions' and many other persons' experience is very positive and seldom negative. However, this phrasing does seem to reveal an ingrained attitude and uninformed mind(s) prejudicial to sound regulation.
Another example: "the owner .. shall not permit it to: chase, bite or attack another animal" (Public Consultation Report, page 8.) Obviously "bite or attack" are sound but "chase"? Dogs chase each other in play. They should not chase deer but does it constitute environmental mayhem if a dog chases a squirrel up a tree, say, in Patterson Park? A lack of clear, well-informed thinking seems evident.
The NCC's negative bias against "domestic animals" is further starkly revealed in the following two sentences:
- "Fencing off-leash areas meets the needs of users who do not own domestic animals by providing a safe and healthy environment in which these users may enjoy recreational activities." (Public Consultation Report, page 20.) Did this mean that owners of "domestic animals" do not require or merit "a safe and healthy environment"? Or did it mean that the presence of those "domestic animals" will necessarily jeopardize "a safe and healthy environment"?
- "...would do nothing to respond to the concerns of persons who object to domestic animals because they are made uncomfortable by the animals..." (Canada Gazette citation, page 1053.) The vast majority of dogs and cats do not seek to make anybody "uncomfortable" or, to speak honestly, fearful. To encounter a muskrat, a skunk or a raccoon in an urban park is a cause for caution and perhaps fear. But, unless a particular wild animal is dangerous and actually attacks someone, would the authorities take action? The most common fault of a dog is being over-friendly; the vast majority of owners bring their dog away from people who do not welcome canine attention. Hence, the basic question comes down to this: does an individual's irrational fear of, or animosity towards, pet dogs or cats form a sound basis for federal government regulation?
A Modest Proposal
The 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year on-leash rule is foolish, unfair and unenforceable. Nevertheless, as a gesture of compromise, we proposed that during the good weather months (mid-May to mid-October) dogs would stay on-leash from 4 PM until 8 PM, the best time of the summer day. The NCC VP Michelle Comeau unequivocally rejected the proposal, relying on the prior "public consultation" as grounds to resist changes.
After a summer of observation, it has become evident that dog walkers make by far the most use of Patterson Park. Since early July, owners have mostly refrained from exercising dogs off-leash in Patterson Park during the 4-8 PM period. The consensus from casual but frequent observation is that other persons made little use of the park. Moreover, the NCC, unlike the City of Ottawa to this day, found that the shared hour approach "was not feasible" (Canada Gazette citation, page 1048) despite the available evidence that it is self-enforcing.
The regulation to keep dogs on-leash at all times in Patterson Creek Park and about 25 similar venues is demonstrably unjustified.
The so-called public consultation was fatally defective. The NCC has failed to develop a consensus. Enforcement is highly problematic and would pull resources from other priorities. The anger engendered by the unjustified revocation of a longstanding use of the Ottawa park(s) and the Commission's continued intransigence will further undermine the NCC's reputation.
Part of Stanley Avenue Park, very comparable to Patterson Park, will continue as an off-leash area. Neither the Regulatory Impact Assessment Statement nor the consultation report explained why Stanley Avenue, in New Edinburgh, as well as Pine Hill and Hillsdale Avenue parks in Rockcliffe, are exceptions to the rule. Obviously, no urban park received individual analysis or assessment.
NCC documents betray an anti-dog bias and a lack of essential knowledge. Moreover, they elevate personal fears or dislike of pets to a level where they become an entirely improper basis for federal government regulation.
Although Ottawa tried and failed to promote removal of dog waste to owners' toilets about 12 years ago, the NCC still thinks this idea viable. It wants pet owners not only to stoop and scoop, as they certainly must, but also to remove the bag and NOT to put it into an NCC garbage can. NCC officials should reflect long and hard on Voltaire's dictum that the best is the enemy of the good.