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“We need to take a sober second look”: Councillor James Pasternak on his opposition to the Alcohol in Parks Pilot Program

The councillor for York Centre discusses his qualms with drinking in public parks, Toronto’s many nonsensical bylaws and his dream of tax-free booze for all

“We need to take a sober second look”: Councillor James Pasternak on his opposition to the Alcohol in Parks Pilot Program
Photo courtesy of James Pasternak

Prohibition may have ended in Ontario 96 years ago, but it’s still illegal to drink a tallboy in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Not that anyone is listening: many Toronto parks are already unofficial speakeasies, and the city’s bylaw officers rarely bother with tickets. After years of waffling, Toronto city council is finally considering a pilot program that would allow drinkers of age to sip responsibly in over 20 parks—including Trinity Bellwoods and Riverdale Park East—from August 2 to October 9. However, the proposal still needs to survive a vote at council’s July 19 to 21 session, and one councillor, James Pasternak, has vowed to oppose it. We asked Pasternak what he’s got against one of the city’s favourite pastimes, what policies he’d like to see put in place, and whether he’s ever—like ever ever—sipped an alcoholic beverage in one of Toronto’s public parks.


You’ve been an outspoken critic of the Alcohol in Parks Pilot Program. Why risk losing your invite to sip beers on the grass with your buds? Listen, I enjoy having a drink just like most people, but the timing’s not good. The city has nowhere near enough resources to clean up beer cans and additional garbage, and park operations are already desperately underfunded. We also don’t have enough money for public education about the rules. For example, under the proposed guidelines, open alcoholic beverages would not be allowed within the boundaries of outdoor swimming pools or within a two-metre radius of playground equipment. There’s a lot to learn about this new approach—the volume of alcohol allowed, the penalties for impaired driving, the consequences for violating littering bylaws and so on. We just don’t have the resources for this to succeed.

But people have already been drinking in parks, albeit illegally, and usually without causing problems. Why would that change with legalization? The vast majority of drinkers are very responsible—they drink in moderate amounts, know when to stop and don’t stretch the rules. But we’re worried about the small sliver of society where that responsibility doesn’t hold.

And what sliver is that, exactly? Well, let me tell you this. When this first came to council, we got input from CAMH. They said that loosening regulations around drinking in parks could lead to an increase in alcohol consumption among young people. For context, this was during lockdowns in 2021, so bars were closed. Their position was, We already have enough problems with alcohol and addiction. Why make it worse? Andrew Murie from Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada also opposed it, saying that it would lead to an increase in public intoxication. He pointed out that, while bars have Smart Serve–trained employees to cut people off, you don’t have that kind of supervision in parks.

But, again, many people are already doing it. Do the ones you’re talking about pay so much attention to city hall that they’ll go nuts as soon as the law changes? I think there will be a large congregation of people flocking to the parks in question, and my prediction is that councillors will be inundated with complaints about disturbances, loud music, litter, aggressive or violent behaviour, vandalism and impaired driving. So we need to take a sober second look at it.

You’ve called this a “doomed policy.” Why do you think it’s destined to fail? Because enforcement is almost impossible. Let’s say there’s a 911 call to a 200-acre park. That’s much bigger than any of the ones in the pilot, but if we moved toward legalizing drinking in all the city’s parks, there are a few that are even larger, like High Park or Centennial Park. Officers would have to find the spot where the call came from. They might walk through half the park, and as soon as people see them coming, they’ll disperse. And we’re not just talking about the rights of drinkers. It’s also about the rights of families who want to enjoy these parks alcohol-free. Many of our green spaces share borders with schools, and you can’t have people consuming alcohol steps away from a schoolyard. I’ll also note that we do already have a policy for consumption of alcohol in parks: you can apply for a permit to have a social function.

Right, but that involves submitting a form to the province’s Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which has to be authorized by the city, which involves another form plus a measured floorplan map of the area being licensed and a cover letter. Isn’t that a lot of red tape to drink a beer on a patch of grass? I agree. Nobody should have to go through all that, and I’m going to try to make it easier to get permits for things like wedding receptions or small gatherings.

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Do you really think there’s no way we can also legalize drinking at smaller-scale, spontaneous park gatherings? If people are doing it already, why all the hysteria about legalizing it in every park? People are keeping it low-key because they know it’s not permitted.

So you’re okay with keeping it illegal but turning a blind eye? Isn’t that kind of a strange stance for a lawmaker? Look, some of the bylaws on our books are so antiquated, I’m surprised they haven’t been scrapped. Park users who are drinking alcohol should be following the rules. But the reality is that they’re usually quite discreet and generate no complaints, so municipal licensing doesn’t respond to them.

Some councillors have framed this as an equity issue: plenty of people in the city don’t have a backyard to hang out in. What I’ve heard from CAMH is that opening up our parks to alcohol would actually harm people in lower socio-economic brackets. In a letter to city council from April 2021, they said policies that increase alcohol consumption have the potential to reinforce health inequality, since for any given drinking pattern, these people experience greater alcohol-related harm.

What about Torontonians from communities that are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement? Do you believe we should be cracking down on illegal park drinking? I really don’t. It isn’t a good investment. We saw during the pandemic how ill-advised it was to send officers into parks to enforce social distancing regulations. It just didn’t work. Right now, we don’t even have the resources to enforce our off-leash dog rules, noise violations, littering, illegal open fires or property damage. So I wouldn’t recommend putting more money into enforcement. If a disturbance occurs, then that’s a police matter.

You’ve warned that allowing alcohol in parks could take business away from bars and restaurants. But, when Vancouver tried it, city staff found rich opportunities for partnerships with local breweries and other businesses.  In a pub or a restaurant, customers drink and then get food as the munchies take hold. If you go to a park with your own drinks and sandwiches, those establishments are losing that business. I can’t see that being a good thing for Toronto’s struggling restaurant industry.

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What about for its citizens? We are in an affordability crisis, and it’s cheaper to buy alcohol at the LCBO than at a restaurant. That’s a valid point. But, if we want to create equity in the marketplace, we should cut the sin taxes everyone has to pay for alcohol—though that would be beyond the purview of city hall.

I’m all for cheaper booze. But my point is that both Vancouver and Edmonton have run park-drinking pilot programs so successful that both cities ended up legalizing it. What’s often glossed over is that those pilots did have problems. Vancouver had to spend $80,000 more on garbage collection because of beer bottles. We don’t have all the statistics yet. But, if council decides to run this project, we’ll be able to study it. It’s going to be an interesting social experiment.

Okay, here’s the big question. Have you ever—in your entire life—drank alcohol in a Toronto park without a permit? No. I once went to a wedding event in a licensed green space at Spadina House, but I’ve never taken alcohol to a park.

Why not? Well, first of all, I’m an elected official, so I rarely drink. If I do drink, it’s usually in a restaurant or a pub, and always when I’m not driving afterward. Otherwise, I have a drink at home. I do not go to my local park. It’s illegal.

But hopefully not for long. If the pilot program moves forward, will you finally try it out? It’s unlikely. I don’t think I’d change my habits at this point.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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