Seniors to walk hassle-free from now on

October 22nd 2009

Margaret Guthrie gave “top marks” to Mark Grimes this week after the Etobicoke-Lakeshore councillor took a stroll with her walking group at Humber Bay Park West, where just last month they were allegedly accosted by a city bylaw officer for using the park without a permit. “He was very amenable and apologetic and told us all that we won’t be hassled in a Toronto park ever again,” she said of their Monday meeting. “It was very good of him to come.”

Back on Sept. 21, Guthrie, a 71-year-old cancer survivor, her partner Don Foster and 10 other seniors were just finishing up an hour-long walk through the park – a twice weekly warm-up to their fitness class at a nearby community centre – when a city bylaw officer confronted them.

Guthrie said the officer went so far as to take photos of both the participants and their licence plates after the group failed to produce a permit and refused to give him their names. He also followed them to the Polish Alliance Hall where their fitness classes are held, and unsuccessfully pressed administrative staff there for information about the group’s members, she alleged.

While the City’s Parks Municipal Code (Chapter 608) states that anyone who uses city parks for commercialized recreational purposes is required to pay the city for a $28.65 per hour permit, Grimes told The Guardian Thursday that, after his invigorating, 45-minute walk-along with the seniors this week, he’s convinced that their activities at the park do not fall within park permit policy.

“It will be my strong recommendation to Brenda Patterson (general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation) when we meet next week that this (walking group) falls outside that policy,” he said, noting his belief that the time of city bylaws could be better spent pursuing other matters than a few seniors out for a walk. “As far as I’m concerned, they won’t be paying to walk in a park in my ward, and shouldn’t have to in any other ward, either.”

Vocal criticism of the officer’s handling of the situation became rampant after the seniors’ plight began making headlines last week. While newspaper columnists took the city to task for being a bully, Susan Eng, vice president of advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), called upon Mayor David Miller “to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all Torontonians, but especially older residents, are welcome to walk in our parks without a licence.”

Both Miller and Grimes issued public statements in the wake of the controversy last week – both calling for “discretion and flexibility” in city staff’s application of their policies and assuring the seniors that a review of the policy was to be undertaken by parks staff.

Guthrie, meanwhile, is hopeful that the future of walking groups city-wide is a hassle-free one.

“I hope this isn’t just a dispensation for us,” she said. “I think any group should be able to walk in city parks without a permit.”