You may have had some problem in your neighbourhood: A loud dog that barks incessantly each night; a yard where the grass has turned to weeds; buildings that have fallen into disrepair. You may have called the city to ask for help. If you didn’t get a timely response, you may have wondered just what the bylaw officers are busy attending to, instead of your problem.
Now we know: they are cracking down on the import of improperly traded goods. Drugs? No. Counterfeit products? No. Unsafe materials? No.
Fabric and thread? Yes.
For most of the past year, the City of Prince Albert has been waging a battle with the Prince Albert Quilt Guild. This group has been around for years and, like many other organizations in our city, is a non-profit, simply structured organization that offers a place for people with a shared interest to gather, talk, and learn. The women of the guild are bright, proficient people who have opinions and can tackle big issues when they want to, but when it comes to these meetings, that are not the purpose. Quilting is their relaxation, their hobby -- perhaps bordering on obsession at times -- but it’s not a political act.
That’s not to say that the members of the guild don’t use their talents for the community. They have taken on projects such as providing quilts to care homes, knowing that the sight and feel of a handmade quilt can be comforting to a child, or remind a senior in long-term care of past days when such bed coverings were routine, rather than the exception.
The Quilt Guild hardly seems like a target for enforcement by the City, but apparently the group is being watched. They bring in speakers from outside Prince Albert to talk about new methods and products. These speakers, who may run quilting shops as well as practise the craft, sometimes bring products with them to sell to the club members. We don’t have a specialty shop of this kind in Prince Albert, so this offering is a convenience to a group of people interested in these kinds of products.
The scenario is not unlike many other situations of interest groups holding an event, with some sales of related products attached to it. I have never heard of concerns being raised over the legality of these activities but, for some reason, the city has decided to set an example with the presenters brought in to talk to the quilters. There was no transient trader licence in place, which is what every person or business selling goods or services on a temporary basis in Prince Albert should have. The cost is fairly low, compared to a regular business license, but it’s a bit of bureaucracy that an infrequent visitor to the city might not know about, or think wouldn’t apply on a one-time basis.
Someone tipped off the city about the nefarious doings of the quilters and the heavy hand of the law was brought down to demand proper licensing. The guild members, wanting to make things easier for the presenters they had invited, went to the city to ask for some leniency in the fees, given the very short-term nature of the selling. After many discussions and several reports that undoubtedly cost more to produce than the licence fees for this situation will ever generate, at its last meeting, city council refused to budge. All sellers coming into our city must pay.
Not all of council voted in favour of continuing this pursuit of justice against the guild. Councillors Charlene Miller and Don Cody voted for leniency. Cody commented that “when it’s 40 below, I hope none of you has a nice, warm quilt.” At the very least, the members of council who voted to continue this battle should expect a cold shoulder from guild members.
In some ways, council’s decision is correct: the law should apply equally to all. However, the application of every law to every person does not happen in reality. Priorities have to be set by law enforcement personnel every day, and we trust them to choose wisely so as to best protect our safety.
But if council wants to be equitable, and crack down on all people selling goods in our city without proper licensing, they are going to need a lot more bylaw officers. Beyond authors selling their books (sometimes within city-owned buildings like the library) and musicians selling their albums (sometimes in the lobby of the city-owned arts facility) there are other, more clandestine, deals going down. Often, it is women not unlike those in the quilt guild who orchestrate these nefarious doings: organizing parties in the secrecy of their basements, inviting only their closest friends, so that scrapbooking supplies, jewelry, clothing, candles, makeup or kitchen goods can be bought and sold.
The work of stopping people from shopping outside the boundaries of Prince Albert stores has only just begun, and frankly, I doubt that city council and all the bylaw officers they can muster will be able to investigate and prosecute all these possibly illegal activities.
But looking on the positive side, some good might come out of all this, after all: if a bylaw officer comes to your door during your next purse party or club meeting, it would be a good time to point out the waist-high weeds across the alley, the howling dog, or the tumbledown garage next door.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.