Jack Knox: ‘Are you kidding me?’ Chemainus kids banned from playing on street

Jack Knox mugshot genericWe don’t live in the most kid-friendly part of the country.

With just 13 per cent of the population under age 15, Greater Victoria has the fewest children, relatively speaking, of any city in Canada. Vancouver Island is dotted with communities — Youbou, Union Bay, Woss, Honeymoon Bay — that no longer have schools at all. Gated 50-plus developments use grey hair as a selling feature.

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Which brings us to Chemainus, where there’s an uproar over a decision to ban children from playing on a private street.

It involves the small Artisan Gardens neighbourhood, where homeowners at their strata’s annual general meeting last week voted to ban using the road for play “including hockey, baseball, basketball, skateboarding, chalk artistry, bicycling or other sports and recreational activities.”

The move blindsided the four families whose 11 young children are affected. Three of the families rent, so didn’t get a vote.

“I went: ‘What, are you kidding me?’ ” says Crystal Clarke, a mother of three who has lived in the neighbourhood for three years. “I’m OK with no hockey and no baseball, but to not let my three-year-old ride her bike in front of my house, that’s silly.”

Christa Howard, whose daughter turns four in two weeks, was similarly gobsmacked. “We had no idea that we were upsetting anyone.” The strata’s decision was done in the name of safety, but Howard suspects it has more to do with shifting demographics in what was once advertised as a family area but is now marketed as great for retirees. Some people don’t want to have to look out for children when they back out of the driveway.

The street in question — a quiet cul-de-sac with a narrow neck just wide enough for one car to pass — is the only place where all the kids can get together to play, Howard says. A parent is always present, she says. “We’ll sit on the side of the road and watch them.”

Predictably, once word of the ban filtered out, a backlash ensued in the community.

The strata council’s Vandy Noble — who voted against the ban — says those who favoured the idea did have children’s safety in mind, but many now regret the sweeping nature of the motion. “I think most are looking to compromise and to get back to being a family community.”

In any case, the strata is far from the first to go down this (childless) road. Many Canadian cities have bylaws that make it illegal to play in the street, and B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act can be interpreted that way, too. In reality, though, such laws are enforced so rarely, usually when a neighbour registers a complaint, that it becomes a cause celebre when they are.

In Hamilton, Ont., where a woman was vilified after raising a ruckus over road hockey a few years ago, the city recently ended its 60-year-old ban on the sport. A $75 noise-bylaw fine levied against a street hockey player in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., was overturned in 2011. Earlier, Bobby Orr and Sidney Crosby went to bat (stick?) for those battling street hockey bans in the Maritimes. In 2000, when Port Coquitlam condo owners went to court to stop children from playing road hockey, former Vancouver Canuck Tiger Williams offered to pay their parents’ legal bills.

In case you’re wondering, the City of Victoria has no appetite for chasing children off the street. Likewise, Saanich is reluctant to stop youngsters from being active. Saanich says people could, in theory, make a nuisance or noise complaint, but on the only occasion that anyone can remember that happening, the complainant was persuaded to — and here I paraphrase — get a life.

All this happens at a time when we’re constantly bombarded with warnings that it’s vital to get kids playing outside. Even if we force sedentary, screen-addicted Junior to stumble into the sunlight, we’re told, he probably couldn’t wobble more than a block without getting winded and taking a knee. Adults should be pushing their children out the door, not locking them in the basement. (Echoes of my own mother’s voice: “What are you kids doing inside on a day like this? Get your guns and go to the dump.”)

That’s the background for the Chemainus ban. “We’re being told to get our children outside and be active, and now we’re being told we can’t do that outside our own homes,” Howard said.

That is, if you can afford both a home and children. In Victoria, where RBC says owning a home can suck up 63 per cent of household income, that’s far from a certainty. It isn’t easy to raise a family here.

Noble remains hopeful for change: “I believe there is nothing more joyful than happy children at play.”

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