If you spit on a sidewalk in Hay River, N.W.T., there is now a fine for that.
Town council passed the new bylaw this week, titled the "Public Behaviour" bylaw, listing a number of behaviours including spitting, loitering, fighting and public intoxication.
Fines for breaking the bylaw range from $100 to $1,000 depending on a first or third offence, and are enforceable through Hay River's protection services.
"We've had many reports of safety concerns in some of the area, especially downtown, for accessing public and private facilities," Keith Dohey, deputy mayor with the town, told CBC News.
"Some of the kids are afraid to walk to the rec centre, they won't go to the library, they don't want to use the skate park … so this is basically just one tool, I guess, that the town will have to hopefully be able to address some of those safety concerns."
The bylaw comes after two climate crisis-filled years for the town, which has been evacuated three times in under two years, first for flooding, then for fires. Amid the climate chaos, crime has also continued to plague the town from drug busts to assault charges for youth and toxic drugs warning from the Chief Public Health Officer.
Drugs and assault are covered under the Criminal Code and youth justice act, enforceable by the RCMP, but now bylaw officers will have some more authority to address other behaviours listed in the bylaw, Dohey said.
Fines for violating Hay River's new bylaw range from $100 for first-time spitting to $1,000 for a third offence of fighting. (CBC)
Spitting is on the lower end of the fine scale, but the majority of the other behaviours on the list start at $200 for a first time offence — except for fighting which carries a first time fine of $500.
Fines are not the priority though, the deputy mayor explained.
"We're hoping that through just conversation and the right approach, rather than a heavy handed approach … most folks, if you explain things to them, are going to be pretty open," Dohey said.
Elder calls bylaw 'narrow minded'
The bylaw has raised some concerns.
Elder Beatrice Lepine, who has lived in Hay River all her life, said the issues in her community are part of broader health and wellness woes.
"Yeah, there is a problem with people loitering," she said. "But that's telling us there's a larger problem and the town council is not able to deal with that kind of thing and they should leave it to the professionals."
Beatrice Lepine, a lifelong Hay River resident, says she's concerned by the growing number of drug-related incidents in her community. (Submitted by Beatrice Lepine)
Last December, a group of elders in Hay River and K'atl'odeeche First Nation banded together to tackle what they said was the biggest problem in the communities — addiction.
Lepine was a founding member of the group. She said they met a couple times and discovered there are sufficient resources in town for people to access, such as counselling, but first people need to want it.
"It is not something that can be forced upon them," Lepine said.
And one major puzzle piece sorely lacking, the elder said, has been brought up over the years by several advocates — a northern based treatment centre.
Lepine was disappointed with the territory's last health minister, who declined to push for local treatment centres, believing they were unlikely to come to fruition, and better left up to Indigenous governments.
The elder is among many are wondering what the new assembly will bring following the Nov. 14 territorial election.
And she's not sure whether her town councillors and bylaw officers are equipped to deal with the health and wellness issues manifest in the downtown.
"Our town council, they're just not really understanding what the issues are on the street level," Lepine said.
"They just want those people off the street. They don't want their nice pretty little town dirtied up with a bunch of loitering Indigenous people."
New bylaw part of 'much bigger picture'
Behaviours bylaws are unusual in N.W.T. communities.
Hay River modelled its new bylaw in part on one adopted in Inuvik in 2020. According to a town council package, consultation with Inuvik on the bylaws effectiveness found that it's important to recognize areas of town where "certain behaviours are tolerated. Otherwise, authorities would be chasing people around town from place to place."
An example in the report was the Inuvik warming shelter. The deputy mayor of Hay River said his town also has a warming shelter and day shelter.
"We certainly recognize that this isn't a magic pill here that's just going to solve the problems and we're certainly not trying to criminalize homelessness," Dohey said.
The town is also working with other interest groups, Dohey said, to brainstorm solutions.
The new bylaw actually started as a recommendation from the town's social issues committee — a new group that was formed last year.
The committee consists of members from regional health, housing, Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre, RCMP and the Hay River Metis Government Council, according to the town website.
"The town itself as a governing body is fairly limited in what it can actually achieve … so we're all trying to work together and you know, the town's not trying to do this as a silo." Dohey said.
But the deputy mayor acknowledged the new bylaw would not be "the end all, be all" for addressing safety concerns in Hay River.
"The town isn't looking at this and saying, well here this is what we are doing to solve the problem," he said.
"It's part of a much bigger picture here."