British Columbia

Why you still can't legally drink in Vancouver parks, 2½ years after the park board began studying the issue

The Vancouver Park Board's governance structure is unique in that the board is elected, with separate powers and responsibilities from city council, and those responsibilities are outlined by the Vancouver Charter — meaning any significant changes to its oversight come from the province. 

Elected park board structure, separate provincial rules mean some decisions take longer than in other cities

The City of Chilliwack has designated two park areas where adults are allowed to drink alcohol — but Vancouverites are still waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn to allow similar permission in their city. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver Park Board Chair Camil Dumont understands the frustration local residents have seeing municipalities across Metro Vancouver legalize drinking in certain parks while their city sits in bureaucratic limbo.

But he says the board has done all it can.

"It's going to happen, and I think it's going to be OK in the long run, but certainly it's frustrating to see how long it takes," he said.

In December 2018, the park board voted to have staff study the issue, and 18 months later staff came forward with a plan. Because Vancouver is governed by a separate piece of provincial legislation than other cities — the Vancouver Charter — it was decided the province needed to amend its laws before the plan could go any further. 

The province did so last week, and Dumont said the park board should launch its pilot program, allowing drinking in parts of 22 different parks, in a couple of weeks. 

"It is actually quite sticky and complicated. We've learned a lot through it … we've got our zones ready, and as soon as we get word from the province that it's totally wrapped up, we'll be ready to go," he said.

The Vancouver Park Board operates more than 250 separate parks across the city. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

Is an elected park board needed?

In recent years, the park board has been involved in many contentious decisions — including public drinking, homeless encampments, bike lanes and keeping mammals in captivity — that have highlighted two unique things about its governance structure.

The first is, unlike in other major municipalities in Canada, the park board is elected, with separate powers and responsibilities from city council. The second is, those responsibilities are outlined by the Vancouver Charter, meaning any significant changes to its oversight come from the province. 

It means that periodically there are calls to eliminate the park board when it moves slowly or disagrees with higher levels of government. 

Mayoral candidate Ken Sim has made it his first major campaign promise.

"People are bypassing government and having drinks in parks right now. So what does that say about the effectiveness of the park board?" he said.

"It's not transparent, it's not accountable, it's not effective and we need to take politics out of parks and … roll it under city council just like every other city in the province."

Ken Sim, who came within 1,000 votes of becoming Vancouver's mayor in the last election, says trying to abolish the park board is a top priority if he is successful in a new election attempt next year. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Park board support on council

Sim's promise would require provincial approval because of the Vancouver Charter and would likely also require a unified council or referendum.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart hasn't attacked the park board's legitimacy, and the two politicians who moved from the board to city council last election also believe it's worthwhile to keep. 

"Park board has always been the closest to the public," said Michael Wiebe, citing the debate around encampments as an example. "They are able to be a bit more nimble and able to gauge community concerns quicker than the city can."

Sarah Kirby-Yung was less effusive about the board's current performance, but said an elected body provided an important balance.

"You actually cannot take a park out of the … City of Vancouver without a very high threshold, which requires a two-thirds vote of [park board] and [council]. That's how our green spaces have been protected," she said, bringing up a host of historical examples in the city.

"If you do away with the park board, the one risk that worries me is you are then subject to the whims of the council of the day."  

As for Dumont, he's hopeful that drinking in parks will soon be legal, and that the board can focus on developing new green spaces and advancing reconciliation with maybe a little less controversy than has engulfed it in recent years.

"People are quite passionate and knowledgeable about the park board issues … I think we're through some of the heavy lifting on certain issues," he said. 

"I don't see something glaring on the horizon, but in my short time [on park board], I've learned better than to count my chickens before they hatch."


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