---Dog park conundrum puts city and dog-owners in tough spot
Responding to a flood of criticism from residents who recently learned about the potential stoppage of off-leash activities at four dog parks in the city, Gatineau’s Municipal council has postponed addressing the matter publicly for another month.
Initially planning to bring forward a motion at its March 16 meeting that would modify municipal regulations to require dogs in the city’s unfenced dog parks be leashed, council removed this item from its agenda for further evaluation. The day before the meeting, the Aylmer Canine Club (CCA) explained the conundrum to its 1,300-plus members via Facebook - urging them to raise awareness to local politicians regarding the importance of finding a solution to preserve off-leash activities at unfenced dog parks.
Gatineau spokesperson Élise Robillard clarified to the Bulletin that the conflict is not a question of potentially closing unfenced dog parks rather than making them compliant to provincial legislation. The proposed provincial law modification would make the parks accessible to dogs on leash, but not off-leash. Provincial legislation regarding the regulation of dogs, passed in March 2020, stipulates that “In a public space, a dog must at all times be under the control of a person capable of controlling it. Except in a dog-run facility or when participating in a dog activity.”
The dog parks affected by this regulation are Aylmer’s Parc Jardins-Lavigne, Parc de la Technologie in Hull, Parc Lamarche in Gatineau, and the northern portion of Parc du Lac-Beauchamp, since they are not fenced. Unsurprised by the city’s response to public outcry, the CCA’s President André Lemay told the Aylmer Bulletin that the issue is a matter of legal interpretation that has been misinterpreted. He argued that provincial law does not indicate a requirement for dog parks to include physical enclosures, and doesn’t clearly define what constitutes a dog park. “[The city] needs to review the way they designate parks,” Lemay said, noting that the city established the four affected dog parks two years ago with the specific purpose of providing dog-owners spaces for off-leash activities. “There was no cause in creating this problem.”
Stating that municipalities are responsible for applying the provincial regulation, Lemay noted that Gatineau currently recognizes four local dog parks (where it plans on making leashes mandatory) and two official off leash canine exercise areas (with fences). He explained that Gatineau’s municipal by-law states that a canine exercise area consists of any place specifically equipped for dog guardians and managed by a non-for-profit-organization with at least 100 members. He added that no mention of a need for an enclosure surrounding a dog park is included in the municipal regulation either, arguing that Gatineau’s unfenced dog parks aren’t failing to comply to provincial legislation. To maintain off-leash activities at all four parks and keep all parties happy, he suggested that the city only needs to legally designate them as canine exercise areas – without needing to install fences. “The solution is fairly simple,” Lemay said.
Questioning the necessity of modifying municipal regulations to make the unfenced parks provincially legal, Lemay said councillors need to realize the importance of maintaining such a popular service for local dog owners and the price of losing it. “It would be disastrous,” Lemay said, estimating that there are around 50,000 dogs in Gatineau and that around 20 per cent of residents own dogs. “That’s a lot of dogs.” He added that the canine exercise areas of Allen Park and the one in Buckingham, which are fenced – thus provincially legal – are not big enough to accommodate local demand, especially if four of the city’s largest parks get essentially shut-down. While hoping for the best possible outcome for dog-owners, Lemay said he’s skeptical about how the city will navigate the situation and disappointed by its lack of transparency. “We’re not saying it won’t work,” Lemay said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it work.”
Along with installing informative signs at local dog parks and posting on social media, Lemay said the CCA joined recently forces with other local canine associations to in its mobilization campaign. Stating that the issue is complicated – particularly due to the fence question - Lucerne district councillor Gilles Chagnon also said the issue is about legal interpretation and respecting public safety regulations. “It’s not black and white,” Chagnon said, noting that the provincial law doesn’t mention anything about a fence. “There’s too much grey.”
Noting that council has rescheduled the announcement to a later date, Chagnon said he will do everything in his power to find acceptable solutions for the city and the local canine community. “That’s the challenge,” Chagnon said. noting that he’s received many complaints from residents on the matter. “At the end of the day, dogs need to run. We don’t want to encourage people to let their dogs lose in the street or at home. We have great park which is enormous. Now, we have to make it legal.”
Having received many complaints from residents concerning the dog park issue as well, Aylmer district councillor Audrey Bureau said that last week was too early to make an announcement. Also calling it a matter of legal interpretation, she said it’s about defining what consists a canine exercise area. Bureau believes there are two possible interpretations. One would see the provincial government declaring that canine exercise areas must be physically enclosed. The other interpretation would be that canine exercise parks don’t need enclosures.
If the first scenario is the real one, Bureau said municipal council will need to adopt a budget to finance the installation of fences at the four dog parks in question – which likely couldn’t be completed until the spring of 2022. In agreement with Lemay, that the provincial law does not indicate that off-leash dog parks must be enclosed with a fence, Bureau is in favour of the second scenario. Bureau assured that councillors will be hell-bent on finding the best solution to the problem. She also asked residents to notify her if they have knowledge of an off-leash dog park in the province that isn’t enclosed with a fence on a municipal property.
Blaming council’s decision to push the announcement to a later date on a fear of negative public reaction, Deschênes district councillor Mike Duggan argued that the issue is more simple than some are making it out to be. “I would say that the public outcry did induce some political cowardice,” Duggan said. “People don’t want to be seen as being against dogs.”
Since Gatineau’s dog parks - except for the enclosed canine exercise area at Allen Park and the one in Buckingham - don’t respect provincial legislation, the city’s doesn’t have a choice but to address the issue accordingly, Duggan said. “We, as municipal councillors, swear to abide the laws and uphold them,” Duggan said, noting that off-leash dog lobbyists don’t include most of the population. “We are currently not abiding by the provincial law. Dogs have to be in enclosed spaces … we have to make measures to comply.”
A self-proclaimed dog-lover, Duggan said he understands the benefits of giving dogs the freedom to run free and socialize, as well as the health and social benefits of the activity for dog-owners. But he emphasized that off-leash dog parks are a privilege and not an essential right - meaning that respecting the law and other people’s safety should be the top priority.
Stating that the matter is largely out of the city’s control, he encouraged residents to support councillors in finding the best solution instead of attacking them for ending up in an unfortunate situation. For Duggan, the obvious solution to the problem - which may take longer than some people would like - is creating a budget dedicated to funding the installation of fences surrounding the four unfenced parks. “A fence is the cheapest form of barrier you can have,” Duggan said. “We’ve got to get plans, where we’re going to build fences, how high they’re going to be, go to tendering, have the budget to pay the contract and build some fences.”
Chagnon agreed that finding a feasible way to fund fences is probably the best way to go. The Aylmer Bulletin contacted local Member of Parliament André Fortin to comment on the matter, but didn’t get a response in time for print. Municipal council will address the matter publicly during an upcoming plenary meeting.