Ottawa

City threatens to shut down west-end Halloween food drive

City officials have put the kibosh on a Halloween community event and fundraiser, saying it contravenes COVID-19-related restrictions, even though organizers say the province gave them the green light to proceed.

Community event contravenes COVID-19 rules, city says, but organizers disagree

With trick-or-treating looking less and less likely, officials are encouraging more creative ways to celebrate the holidays — but one west Ottawa food drive has run afoul of the city's bylaw department. (John Robertson/CBC)

City officials have put the kibosh on a Halloween community event and fundraiser, saying it contravenes COVID-19-related restrictions, even though organizers say the province gave them the green light.

Volunteers have been planning the socially distanced "Great Kanata and Stittsville Spookby and Food Drive" since early September. The plan was to collect food Oct. 31 for the Kanata Food Cupboard from homes on six different predetermined routes.

People were to leave contributions at the ends of their driveways, and a few costumed volunteers would come along — followed by a single, slow-moving decorated truck — and pick them up, place them in the truck, and leave behind bags of candy.

"We wanted people to be happy and to forget, even if just for five minutes, we're in a worldwide public health emergency," said Crystal Smalldon, the event's key organizer.

That goal seems to fit with the encouragement from various levels of government for Canadians to be creative about marking Halloween during the pandemic. Yet Smalldon's initiative has run into official roadblocks that raise puzzling questions about what's allowed and what isn't. 

"Everyone understands that the world is not normal and may not return to normal for a period of time," she said. "However, it's incredibly important that we understand that mental health is important, too." 

Crystal Smalldon, the key organizer behind the Great Kanata and Stittsville Spookby and Food Drive, says city officials have warned her not to proceed with the socially distanced fundraising event for a west-end food bank. (CBC)

Seems to abide by COVID-19 rules

More than 1,200 households expressed interest in the event, 30 volunteers signed up, and six businesses were willing to sponsor it. Smalldon's home is packed with boxes of Halloween candy that people have donated to the cause.

Smalldon said a City of Ottawa bylaw officer told her that if the event went ahead, police would be involved, and that if more than 10 people gathered anywhere along the route, she could be fined up to $750,000.

But from Smalldon's description of the Halloween event, it appears to follow all the current pandemic rules.

Each group collecting donations and dropping off candy was to consist of no more than five people, including the truck driver. Individuals in each group already belong to the same social bubble, either as family members or co-workers. Even though it's all outdoors, all participants are required to wear masks.

According to Smalldon, an "advance team" was to check out each street five to 10 minutes before the truck arrived to ensure they were clear and people weren't gathering at the ends of their driveways. Each home on the route would get a flyer explaining what was happening, she added.

Smalldon said she called the provincial hotline for businesses wanting guidance for operating under pandemic restrictions twice — once in September and again in October — and was told the event didn't appear to contravene any rules.

Residents have donated hundreds of packages of candy for the event, often sending the treats to Smalldon's home by Amazon. (Great Kanata and Stittsville Spookby and Food Drive Facebook Group)

City raises concerns

In late September, organizers were asked by Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower to contact the city's events office to discuss the details of their plan.

They did so. On Oct. 5, an events official emailed Smalldon, outlining the need for everyone to reduce their close contacts at this time, while acknowledging the event did not propose gathering people together.

The following day, a bylaw supervisor asked Smalldon to call him. 

Smalldon said the bylaw supervisor told her the city had received "many, many" complaints about the event. She said she was told that if she went ahead with it, she could be held personally liable.

When CBC asked for the specific number of complaints, city officials could not provide them, but Gower said about five to 10 people had called his office in recent weeks asking about Spookby.

We adjusted or amended our plans to make sure that everything remained completely socially distanced, which is the messaging that's been sent out time and time and time again.- Crystal Smalldon

The city did not provide anyone for an interview.

A statement attributed to Anthony DiMonte, the city's general manager of emergency and protective services, said the city "was made aware of a planned Halloween parade, which originally included members of the public gathering in open spaces, including parks. The organizer would be responsible for maintaining attendance limits."

Smalldon insists that the event is not a parade, as it would involve only one vehicle per route. Nor, she said, is it a large public gathering.

"We adjusted or amended our plans to make sure that everything remained completely socially distanced, which is the messaging that's been sent out time and time and time again," said Smalldon.

"This isn't a gathering. We're driving past the bottom of your driveway while you're on your porch."

Smalldon said a bylaw supervisor told her she could be fined up to $750,000 if she went ahead with the west-end Halloween event. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Residents told to celebrate creatively

Ottawa Public Health has asked that people not have Halloween parties. Indeed, Mayor Jim Watson cancelled his annual Trick or Treat with the Mayor event at city hall.

But city officials have also encouraged residents to think about other ways to celebrate.

"With a little bit of innovation on our side, we can still have an enjoyable Halloween," said Dr. Brent Moloughny, associate officer of health, last week. On Friday, federal officials also suggested people "celebrate creatively with virtual gatherings and festive outdoor activities."

Smalldon said she's wondering what those creative solutions are, if not an event like the Great Kanata and Stittsville Spookby. 

"We're going to have to learn around here to innovate very quickly in order to make change that creates joy," she said.

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