Nelson, B.C. dog ban spooks tourists while failing to keep transients away

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The city of Nelson, nestled picturesquely by a lake in the mountains of southeastern B.C.'s Kootenay region, has an image of living in a counterculture time warp.

Laid-back home of Vietnam-era draft dodgers and aging, crunchy-granola hippies, it earned a reputation as Canada's pot capital, possibly because marijuana grow ops have helped buoy the area's sluggish, resource-based economy over the years.

But according to the National Post, the generation of "let it be" seems to have aged into some crotchety "get off my lawn" crowd.

The Post reports the city is using an outright ban on dogs in the downtown to discourage young drifters from loitering. While many cities require dogs to be on leashes, Nelson may be the first to bar them completely, the paper said.

"It is perhaps a law unfitting a city that free-love flower children and organic cannabis helped build," writes Post reporter Elizabeth Hames.

"But, if you ask its longhaired old-timers why they did it, they will tell you they were trying to stop a new generation of hippies from following their sandaled footsteps to the city of 10,000, just north of the U.S. border."

[Related: Ban on tethering dogs mulled in Richmond, B.C.]

Tourism is an important part of the economy for Nelson, a onetime mining town whose Victorian- and Edwardian-era homes and buildings served it well as a location for Steve Martin's 1987 romantic comedy Roxanne.

The dog ban originally was seen as a way of keeping transients from hanging out downtown, because apparently they all come equipped with a pooch.

But locals told the Post it may have backfired by keeping dog-toting tourists out as well.

“It is affecting tourism in this town,” said Noreen Lynas, owner of the Cottons Clothing Company store. “And lots of people who travel with dogs also have money.”

The original hippies and commune dwellers, now parents, homeowners and business people, need tourist dollars to make up for the economic loss of a sawmill that closed in the 1990s. But instead of well-heeled travellers, the city's downtown was infested by "anti-establishment" young people "striking up hacky-sack games and drum circles in the main street, while their unchained dogs soiled Nelson’s sidewalks," the Post said.

“People were afraid to come downtown,” said Tom Thomson with the Nelson Chamber of Commerce, noting the problem peaks in the summer when thousands turn up for the Shambhala Music Festival in nearby Salmo.

“If you go downtown in the middle of summer, sometimes you’ll find more dreadlocks than a Bob Marley concert."

The dog ban apparently didn't work anyway. The transients turned up without their four-footed companions while tourists innocently walking their pets were confronted by the city's bylaw officer, the Post says. Most get off with a warning but Noreen Lynas says it still prompts letters of complaint.

Local businesses have pressed the city to revisit the dog ban, imposed in the mid-1990s, but so far there's been no movement.

"Council has a long, long list of priority actions and I’m not sure where reviewing the dog bylaw would be ranked," Coun. Donna Macdonald wrote in a column for the Nelson Star about a year ago.

"But if a community group can bring a proposal forward, and be able to demonstrate support, it makes action a lot easier. I expect that some form of ongoing oversight by the (Nelson Business Association) may also be needed, to make the solution work."