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Jack Knox: Unshovelled sidewalks and the lessons of a turkey lunch

As you may have noticed, compliance with municipal bylaws requiring residents and business owners to clear the walks adjoining their properties is pretty hit and miss.

Some snow-day notes:

• Wayne Sheeran was temporarily marooned.

The 75-year-old was trying to work his way down Pandora Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, but couldn’t push his walker down the snow-covered sidewalk. Eventually he began creeping forward a few inches at a time, lifting the walker up and stabbing it down into the snow as he aimed for a stretch of cleared sidewalk half a block away.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. Shouldn’t the city be clearing the path?

No, actually, sidewalks are supposed to be cleared by the people in the buildings that front onto them. Most municipalities have a bylaw that requires residents and business owners to clear the walks adjoining their properties.

As you might have noticed over the past couple of days, though, compliance is pretty hit and miss, particularly in residential areas.

At some homes neither sidewalk nor driveway were cleared, but at others the driveway alone was done. I stumbled (literally) across one place where the snow had been shovelled from the driveway onto the sidewalk so that it created an impassable barrier for pedestrians.

There are, at least in theory, stiff penalties for failure to shovel. In Victoria, for example, those who don’t have sidewalks cleared by 10 a.m. could face a $125 fine. Ditto for Saanich, except the fine is $150. In Esquimalt it’s $112.50 if you pay right away but can rise to $187.50 if you take over 30 days to pay. Sidney’s bylaw carries a $260 fine, discounted to $200 for early payment.

Historically, though, fines are a weapon usually kept holstered. “The city spends $300 a pop for ads warning the citizenry that snow must be removed,” Times Colonist reporter Patrick Murphy wrote in a 1995 story about a Victoria bylaw that he compared to a toothless tiger. “But like the snow, Victorians can just ignore it and it will go away.”

Municipalities generally prefer a gentler route. Oak Bay posted a reminder Wednesday that “residents are responsible for clearing sidewalks.” Saanich began circulating a similar message in the days leading up to the snow. Langford and Esquimalt urged residents to help neighbours who have a hard time clearing snow.

Does anyone ever actually get in trouble for ignoring the bylaws? “We do issue fines for repeat offenders or larger corporate businesses that have the means to comply but fail to do so,” a Saanich representative said.

Esquimalt said its bylaw is “enforced as reasonably required.” In Sidney, those who drag their feet too long can expect a letter shoving them toward the shovel.

In Victoria, after checking on those who slept outdoors the previous night, city staff turned to downtown foot patrols, particularly along Government and Douglas Streets, to impress upon businesses the need to have their walks cleared by 10 a.m.

BTW, the clearest patch of sidewalk I encountered Wednesday was alongside the Best Western Carlton Plaza Hotel on Johnson, where valet Shadrack Addo — while wearing a tie, no less — had been wielding a shovel for the best part of two days. Wayne Sheeran would have appreciated the effort.

• On Wednesday, Our Place resurrected its pre-pandemic tradition of a Christmas lunch, a meal in which members of the community — politicians, media, sports figures and so on — dish up turkey dinner with all the fixings to those who could use it.

Among those who cycled through: MP Elizabeth May, MLAs Murray Rankin and Grace Lore, Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto, VicPD Chief Del Manak, a bunch of municipal politicians from throughout the region….

“Today’s lunch is a way for us to show the people we serve that the community is still here to support them,” said Our Place’s Steven Seltzer. It also gives members of that community a glimpse at who needs support.

There were close to 400 of them Wednesday, mostly men, many of them of an age where you hoped they had somewhere comfortable to sleep at night as the wind howled and the temperature sank.

At least they would sleep on full stomachs, which is no small thing during a time of high food prices; inflation is contributing to a surge in need at Our Place. At the same time, the agency is unlikely, for the first time in years, to hit its fundraising target. “What worries us is January and February,” Seltzer said. “That’s when people really get forgotten.”

• Reader Joan Thain wrote Wednesday with a reminder to acknowledge workers who provide essential services in facilities such as care homes and hospitals. “My mother is in a care home, and has described the challenges that present when staff can’t make it to work,” she wrote. “There are stories of staff who work double shifts and others who walk great distances to cover for those who cannot. I am so grateful for their efforts.”

• A note from another reader. “The definition of climate change is when people moving to the West Coast call their relatives back east at Christmas gloating over how great the weather is here,” writes Wayne Winkler, “and now get gift-wrapped snow shovels from them with instructions how to use them.”

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