UPDATED: Nelson lands on front page of National Post

Nelson's ban on dogs in the downtown has once again garnered the community some attention.
— image credit: Bob Hall photo

Nelson has landed on the front page of a national newspaper, but this time it’s not the glowing words locals have come to expect.

Friday’s National Post featured a story headlined “Going gets ruff for B.C. town’s dog ban: Move to save downtown drives tourists away.” Written by freelance journalist Elizabeth Hames, the article is not being well received by the community.

“I was certainly disappointed in the tone of the article,” said Nelson city councillor Deb Kozak. “I thought it was unfair in the way it spoke about the people of Nelson and how this community accepts people. The article was simply wrong… that’s not my experience and not the experience of the people who live here.”

The basis of the article is the downtown dog bylaw. Coming in at more than 1,300 words, the story interviews several business owners and business leaders.

The story opens by calling Nelson Canada’s pot capital. It goes onto examine the history and current situation with the downtown dog ban.

“It is perhaps a law unfitting a city that free-love flower children and organic cannabis helped build,” Hames writes.

The reporter hits on all the expected references to Nelson — hippies, Roxanne, mountain geography, mining roots — but the intent is not to paint the community as idyllic.

“The dog ban was part of a sweeping series of bylaws targeting the young nomads,” Hames writes. “Within a span of a few years, hacky sack, skateboarding, rollerblading, and unauthorized music were all outlawed on Baker Street, Nelson’s historic main strip. Nothing worked. The transients kept coming — now without their pets. Even in the coldest winter months, you can still find a half-dozen youths wearing black trenches and dragging frayed duffel bags as they congregate under the awning of Sonia’s China Cabinet, a gift shop that never seems to open. In a few months, the huddle will morph into an army when 10,000 music fans file in for the yearly Shambhala Music Festival in nearby Salmo.”

Kozak said the article takes the easy way out.

“As far as I know, nobody on council or with the city was contacted at all,” said Kozak. “That really disappointed me, I expect better from journalists. I expect journalists to get all sides of the story and I felt that was lacking in this article for sure.”

Hames said she did speak with city manager Kevin Cormack and attempted to sit down with Mayor John Dooley during the four days she spent in Nelson earlier this month. The reporter said Dooley failed to show up for the interview.

The Vancouver-based Hames told the Star via email that she pitched the story to the National Post and came to the community specifically to investigate the story. She said once she started digging a little deeper, her article went beyond dogs.

“Although my story did focus on a contentious issue, I was left with a very positive impression of Nelson overall,” she said in the email. “Everyone I spoke with was welcoming and friendly, and the scenery is unbeatable even on a foggy day. However, because I spent a lot of time on Baker Street, I found it difficult to ignore one of the city’s most pressing problems: homelessness. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this mentioned in one of the many glowing reviews of Nelson I read during my research.”

Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce manager Tom Thomson spent more than a half hour with Hames. He is quoted once in the print edition and once more in the online version of the story. Thomson was not thrilled to see the final result.

“My feeling was it that was really sensationalist, it was full of half truths and conjecture,” said Thomson.

“I believe she came to Nelson with an agenda to write a story on more than something than just a bylaw. When she arranged the interview she said it was about a dog bylaw, but when she sat in my office for 35 minutes, we talked about a lot of things. I talked about all the positives about Nelson with the amenities and attractions, the national and international attention we get from publications. She kept coming back to street people and that we were trying to ban people from town.”

The chamber’s Visitor Information Centre deals with up to 25,000 visitors a year and Thomson said the dog bylaw is not a big deal.

“There are a few people that are a little concerned when you tell them there is a dog bylaw, but we talk about all the places they can take their dogs on trails and parks,” he said. “We offer to keep their dogs here [at the office] while they are downtown and offer their pets biscuits and water. When you talk to people properly it doesn’t offend them. It might be a little bit of a concern, but it certainly isn’t hurting the tourism industry to the extent that some people believe it is. There are a lot more international and economic issues that are hurting our tourism industry over and above a dog bylaw.”

Kozak — who is a bit of hobby journalist having hosted a current affairs program on Kootenay Co-Op Radio — is not overly concerned about the impact the article will have on Nelson.

“In the big scheme of things, no,” she said when asked if the article could hurt Nelson’s reputation. “When I think of all the positive press we have had over the last few years, it’s phenomenal. This is sensationalistic and I don’t think it will hurt our community.”

Kozak did indicate that the article would likely spur the city towards more discussion the bylaw.

Currently city staff is reviewing a number of bylaws and the animal control bylaw is on the list. Kozak said they are ranked by order of highest priority and these types of changes often take time after serious consideration.

“In my opinion, I am willing to look at this again,” said Kozak. “It’s important to be welcoming and I am willing to give it a try. That said, enforcement would be key.”

The veteran city councillor said it would be up to dog owners to make any change a positive one.

“The dog walk at the waterfront is a disgrace, it’s just terrible,” she said of the mess left behind by four-legged friends. “There has to be an agreement that the really positive and good owners are going to assist us in educating the bad owners. It’s not just about ticketing, it’s about education and people picking up the slack where there is some.”

The article can be found on the National Post website by clicking here.

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