Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Free the Sledders!

I don’t buy the idea that government, in general, is a bad thing, designed to harm or control us. I know many in public service or elected office, and most do it for good reasons: to ensure everyone receives the best possible opportunities, services, and benefits of society. Of course, they are all human, so some are selfish or even criminal, while others are incompetent or at best mediocre. But this goes for most organizations, businesses and community groups; it’s not unique to government.

NOTICE: The City of Barrie does not permit any
recreational winter sports on any hills or walkways
Yet government does have special unique powers, one being that unlike business or the non-profit sector, we don’t really have a choice in who governs us. You can pick a different phone company or grocery store but you can’t choose a different government unless you uproot and relocate to another jurisdiction. And though some people do, most find it easier to either try and influence the local situation, or rail against it ineffectively.
Now it’s my turn to rant. Not against our federal government, recently released from the pernicious influence of a mean-spirited, near-sighted, narrow-minded government and now blossoming under a new attitude of “sunny ways”. And not against our provincial government, which is far from perfect, but whose current sins are too nebulous and vague to pin with specific complaints. No, this is a rare instance where I must rail against our local government.
Of course the largest complaint is against the public school board, whose determination to close Barrie’s last downtown high school and build a new on in the suburbs that refuses to comply with the city’s carefully drawn sustainable development plans, is irksome and chronic and defies logic. But that is already well-covered in our local media, and I’m not sure I have any insight to add right now.
Instead, I must complain about our city government, which recently planted a sternly-worded sign atop the toboggan hill my children enjoy during and after school hours, sloping from their schoolyard into a city park. Although this new sign declaring the city “does not permit” sledding or other winter activities was damaged by vandals within hours and disappeared by the next day, I worry it may re-appear.
I get that local government has a responsibility to try and ensure the safety of the public, and is liability-averse, but this is the safest sledding hill I’ve ever seen. It is little more than a single story high and free of obstructions. Hills that feed onto a sidewalk or street are understandably perilous; a high school friend lost a younger brother to a sled-car accident on that kind of hill, but this one bottoms out on a large soccer field. The only risk is of kids falling over on an icy day, or colliding with each other, and those are no worse than the risk of slipping on the sidewalk, driveway, or stairs.
I take some solace in the fact that the sign didn’t say “prohibited” or list a by-law or fine, and I can find no such by-law on the books. Presumably this is just the city’s way of saying “hey, we don’t encourage sledding, if you get hurt it’s your fault, don’t sue us”. Which is fine, but if that sign is ever replaced, I hope they improve the wording, because “does not permit” is enough to spook the school into disallowing recess sledding. And in this age of overweight, under-active children, banning their sole source of healthy winter recreation is very much a step in the wrong direction. Free the sledders!
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Barrie bylaw prohibits tobogganing on neighbourhood hill"; see coverage of this story by reporter Cheryl Brown here, and then read the satisfactory conclusion here.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is vice-president of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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