Skip to content

Dipping into the dog debate

I certainly didn’t anticipate that my first column in this new term of office would be about dogs!
Dogs in Nelson’s downtown is a historically explosive issue and one that is not easily solved

I certainly didn’t anticipate that my first column in this new term of office would be about dogs! But, I might as well seize the moment since the downtown business community is actively discussing the dog bylaw.

I tend to dodge the dog issue for two reasons.

The first is its history. Many people may not know or remember the origins of the bylaw. It comes out of a time of extreme distress in the community in the mid-1990s. The downtown had become a battlefield, between bongo drummers, hacky-sackers, dogs and their friends, young “alternative lifestyle” people, and residents and businesses.

Town hall meetings, held to clear the air, instead clouded it with anger, rudeness and the increasing alienation of young people. The response from council was mainly regulatory — bylaws that banned dogs from the downtown, banned playing games, and banned playing music in the downtown (that’s now been rescinded).

It was a painful time. I often felt the dog bylaw was aimed more at the people on the end of the leash, than at dogs themselves. If we banned dogs, presto, the problem of “those people” was solved.

But I also clearly remember business owners complaining (quite understandably) about having to clean up dog poop that’d been tracked into their store. And I remember seniors talking about their fear of being downtown, of being knocked over by a dog (or a hacky-sacker!). There was a wide range of concerns and deep feelings.

The second reason I avoid this topic is that it’s really unclear to me what the best solution is. It is a surprisingly divisive issue. I have dog-loving friends who generally agree on most things, but just mention the bylaw and sparks start flying. Some think it’s good. Others think it’s the worst bylaw since the city was founded.

I really applaud the Nelson Business Association (NBA) for taking this on. That’s what I said at the all-candidates meeting when this subject came up. That some group, like the NBA, will have to do the footwork and find support for a solution to the problem they’ve identified.

Council has a long, long list of priority actions and I’m not sure where reviewing the dog bylaw would be ranked. But if a community group can bring a proposal forward, and be able to demonstrate support, it makes action a lot easier. I expect that some form of ongoing oversight by the NBA may also be needed, to make the solution work.

It’s critical in considering this issue to remember that the downtown is the heart of the community and while businesses concerns and tourists’ complaints are important, so are the needs of residents. Some measure of community support will be required — because all of us “own” the downtown and we need to ensure everyone is comfortable being there.

A related topic is the proliferation of sandwich board signs. When those were originally permitted, it was to assist businesses off Baker Street or with second-floor locations. If you have a Baker Street storefront, with windows and signage, why would you need a sandwich board too, we reasoned.

Over the years this logic has been forgotten and everybody wants one, creating a bit of clutter on our very busy main street. If we’re going to add dogs to the mix, then the sandwich boards may have to be much more limited.

Those are just two of many, many issues that face the new council and the community in the coming years. I’m looking forward to an interesting and fruitful term. I again want to thank voters for placing their trust in me and giving me the opportunity to serve this remarkable community.

And I want to wish all of you a joyous, warm holiday season, replete with friends, family, giving and love.

Donna Macdonald is a Nelson city councillor who shares this space with her colleagues around the council table