By Stuart Benson
There was confusion and anger May 29 as residents of Wakefield noticed new signs had been installed at the beach by the river across from Turntable Park and near public docks in the village prohibiting loitering and swimming.
Reaction was swift and vocal, as residents struggled to understand why public docks, funded in part by municipal tax dollars specifically intended to improve residents' access to the waterfront, were now barred from being used for their intended purpose.
An email sent to La Pêche Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux, and councillor for Wakefield Claude Giroux, and copied to The Low Down, Shelley Crabtree, president of Wakefield La Pêche Chamber, asked how this new policy had been enacted “unilaterally”. She added that it was seemingly in contradiction of provincial rules regarding the reopening of public areas.
“Are we under separate emergency measures than the province?” Crabtree wrote, with regard to the pandemic, adding, “Has the minister of municipal affairs made exceptions for Wakefield to instill stricter lock down measures?”
Crabtree, along with residents of Wakefield with concerns about the signs, did not have to wait long for answers.
At 2 p.m. May 30, the mayor held a Zoom meeting to answer questions from residents and better explain the reasoning and actual intention of the signs.
According to Lamoureux, the problem had never been swimming to begin with, rather their intention had been to dissuade people from gathering in large numbers on the docks, an issue most residents had previously been consistently vocal about. It was reported to The Low Down by a reader tip that, on May 27, police had to be called on a group of young people with open liquor containers who had been publicly urinating, possibly due to the fact there were no public washrooms installed at the time. When police arrived, the group dispersed but returned later in the day.
Pam Ross, councillor for Ward 5, explained that the municipality had received a memo from the MRC des Collines police the morning of May 28 specifically asking for their assistance in getting better control of the river access points.
“Do I think there’s something wrong with people swimming? No,” Lamoureux said during the meeting. “The problem is too many people congregating too close.”
Lamoreux said that he understands that the measures were imperfect, but the situation had gotten to a point where they felt they needed to intervene immediately.
“Is there a better way to move ahead? It’s undeniable, but I don’t know what that is right now,” said Lamoureux.
“We’re temporarily on pause until we can get our sh*t together,” added Ross.
Residents who attended the meeting said they were understanding of the situation the council had found itself in; many had themselves personally complained about gatherings on the docks and the debris and waste associated with it, but they were not shy about criticizing the council’s response.
“Time is of the essence,” Jacqueline Hansen told the meeting. “The longer the public access points are closed, the more likely people will be to use less accessible points or private property.”
Crabtree, who also attended the meeting, said the docks are near and dear to her heart and that a lot of work was put in to make them a reality, adding that she would like to see a public process to determine how the municipality arrives at re-opening.
“When I look at stores and the additional measures they are taking to provide a service, everyone is taking on additional costs and taking extra safety measures to make sure that people are abiding by the safety measures, so I think there is full justification to expect the municipality to do so as well,” Crabtree said. “Explain the guidelines, explain the rules, and hire the people you need to have in the parks and on the docks.”
Lamoureux wrote in an email after the meeting that, while no final decision had been made, with the cancellation of municipal summer camps the municipality is examining the possibility of offering outdoor activities for families and that the employees in-charge would be tasked with reminding people of the various guidelines related to social distancing.
“Ultimately, we hope people will be mindful and respectful of the COVID-19 guidelines,” Lamoureux said. “No amount of rules can replace good old common sense and responsibility.”
Lamoureux said that new signs had been installed between June 6 and 7 to clarify the intention, and admits that while the council’s intentions were good, the expression of that intention had mistakes.
The new signs focus on encouraging social distancing, hand washing, and covering your mouth when you cough, and there is no longer any mention of swimming or loitering being prohibited.
“We should have made it clear it wasn't about swimming,” Lamoureux said. “I will recognize when I make a mistake.”
Lamoureux said going forward the municipality will work to ensure considerations over COVID-19 don’t infringe on issues like “democratic access to water”, but added that the council will need residents' cooperation and diligence to ensure Wakefield won’t need to take another step back.