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Let's Have a Picnic in Taber, Alberta (But Don't Spit, or Swear!)

03/14/2015 09:07 EDT | Updated 05/14/2015 05:59 EDT
Guido Mieth via Getty Images

A few years ago, my colleagues and I created a website to help kids learn about their rights and freedoms. We called it That's Not Fair! because even young children have a strong sense of fairness. We made six animated videos to show how silly ignoring Charter rights could be. But, you just can't make this stuff up. I know because I tried. Every time I think I have come up with a story for kids that is funny and absurd, and will help them to understand why we have rights and freedoms, a real government does it even better.

Take Taber, Alberta. They have just consolidated a few bylaws that will make gathering in groups of three or more a potentially punishable offence. They will also give people who swear, scream or shout in public a ticket. And please don't even think about spitting in Taber. A fine will await you.

I can just see the next picnic in Taber. A family with two adults and several children go to the park for lunch. When they arrive, the police hand them a ticket. There are just too many of them for Taber, Alberta. They have committed an offence.

Now the adults hand out the sandwiches. An ant crawls into one of the sandwiches, causing a picnicker to spit out the ant and the chewed sandwich onto the grass. Yuck. Another fine.

After eating, the siblings start chasing one another, as kids often do on picnics. And like kids everywhere, they are yelling at one another and calling each other names. While I would take no pleasure in hearing children calling one another "poo-poo heads," I would not like to have to hire a lawyer to determine whether such expression constitutes swearing. Would I need to have a decibel meter to help decide whether the kids were screaming or shouting? And is there a difference between the two?

In our story, Mayor Moe and the Nasty News, the city council comes up with a "Be Nice" bylaw. They decide that they don't like to hear negative remarks or unpleasant expression. After all, who does? While I will not spoil the ending for you, suffice it to say, things do not turn out at all well. Nor will they in Taber, Alberta.

There are 14 sworn police officers for 8,000 citizens in Taber. Each of those citizens and very busy police officers is subject to the Canadian Constitution. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an important part of that constitution, protects every one of these people from having their rights unreasonably limited by governments. While bylaws are the tools used by municipal governments to keep things orderly, they also limit what people can do. For example, there are bylaws about where you may or may not park vehicles, operate a business, let dogs run freely, smoke tobacco, etc.

There are no constitutional rights to smoke or to own vehicles, dogs, or businesses. However, there are protections for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Canada would not be a democracy without them. We do not and should not surrender these rights lightly, even if we are trying to keep things pleasant.

As the folks in the "That's Not Fair!" stories learn, before you limit a right, you need to ask three important questions: 1) Why? What is the purpose you are trying to achieve? 2) Will your measure actually work? And most significantly, 3) What else will it do? What are the side effects or unintended results of the limitation you propose?

So, let's go on a picnic in Taber when spring finally arrives. You bring the sandwiches; I will bring the constitutional lawyer.