Canvassing rules a delicate balance

In recent months charity canvassers on downtown streets have come under fire.

In recent months charity canvassers on downtown streets have come under fire.

Easily distinguishable from panhandlers – and for the most part, seasonal campaign workers – these folks frequently wear colourful vests or have other identifiable clothing and often hold clipboards.

In general, they are not aggressive and politely ask if they might speak with passersby for a moment about a worthwhile program.

What’s the big deal, right?

People in the downtowns of larger cities and resort areas are accosted much more aggressively and regularly with coupons or leaflets for tourist attractions, eateries or other services.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and Coun. Shellie Gudgeon recently teamed up to ask city staff to revisit the 35-year-old bylaw relating to the use of sidewalks as solicitation space. The move was based largely on complaints from visitors about solicitations, voiced in Tourism Victoria exit surveys.

There are already rules protecting the public from aggressive panhandling in the city. But the issue of streetside charity solicitations is not a safety issue.

And no amount of legislation can possibly appease everyone with a low comfort level around this type of canvassing.

Part of the city’s discussion will likely be around the kind of image we want to present to visitors. Another is the question of whether the city needs to limit the type of soliciting being done by charity groups, or the number of canvassers allowed at any given time.

Discussion around the latter point could have implications for the numerous community groups who use sidewalks downtown and elsewhere around the region during fundraising campaigns, such as the Salvation Army, Royal Canadian Legion, Scouts and Girl Guides and others.

In revisiting the wording of the bylaw, the city is responding to complaints, as it should. But councillors need to be careful that any new wording or rules don’t have unintended consequences that unfairly restrict community groups without a polished and paid sales force.