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Quebec town's bylaw requires kids to collect signatures to play in the street

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School is almost out, summer heat is setting in and the children of a small Quebec town southwest of Montreal will soon be able to spend their days shooting hoops in the street -- if they have filed the necessary paperwork.

Last week, the municipality of Les Cedres published a reminder to residents of a bylaw passed last September that authorizes free play zones on residential streets as long as children acquire the signatures of at least two-thirds of households on the street.

"By applying for a free play zone, you increase the level of safety for the youth in your neighbourhood and allow them to play legally on the street," the message reads.

Isabelle Laberge works at the town's primary school and her 11-year-old son sometimes plays in the street with his friends. She thinks most residents of the town about 45 kilometres outside of Montreal were unaware of the bylaw, and the way the municipality communicated the change caused confusion among residents who feared playing in front of their homes had been outlawed.

"I find it a little bit exaggerated, but at the same time I understand the security concerns because there's a recurring issue in Les Cedres with people driving fast, not making their stops, though I'm not sure this will really help either," she said in an interview Wednesday.

Picking up her daughter from the same school, Amelie Rheaume said she doesn't allow her kids to play on their street, one of the more bustling roads in town, because of the number of cars driving past. But other quieter streets, she said, are full of children who can play safely.

"It's very sad for a little village like ours to need to have a bylaw like this," she said, adding that in her opinion it is of little use and won't be respected.

The Quebec Highway Safety Code prohibits obstructing traffic on a public road, but it leaves room for municipalities to pass bylaws that exempt children's play from the ban.

As a school bus driver, Philippe Thinel always has to be vigilant about children in the roadway, but he says it should be common sense for drivers to slow down when they see children at play. Waiting for school to let out Wednesday, he described the bylaw as an "overdone" response to the "petty" provisions in the Highway Safety Code.

Chantal Tremblay, director of communications for Les Cedres, said that so far the municipality has not established any free play zones. But she said children will still be able to play freely, and the bylaw simply allows for the creation of official free play zones with visible signage.

She said police have always tolerated children playing in the street without incident, but she acknowledged that police could get involved if they receive complaints.

Tempers flared and tears were shed at a council meeting on Tuesday night as Mayor Bernard Daoust said the purpose of the bylaw is to increase safety.

Provincial police officer Stephane Quintal told the meeting that police will focus on preventing people from obstructing traffic, not from playing.

"We won't give tickets to kids playing hockey in the street; at worst, we'll give them a warning," he said. "We have a certain level of tolerance, because the road is used by everyone," he added.

Christian Savard, general manager of Vivre En Ville, a Quebec-based organization that promotes sustainable communities, said the bylaw wrongly puts the onus on children and their parents to get approval for play.

"The burden has been put on children who have to go and get signatures just to be able to play in the street, to be able to draw in the street, to be able to play hockey in the street. It's nonsense," he said.

Savard said it should be the other way around, with neighbours gathering signatures to ban street play if it becomes problematic. He wants Les Cedres to follow the example of other Quebec municipalities.

In May, St-Lambert on Montreal's South Shore authorized street play except on designated streets. Other municipalities in the province, including Mascouche and Gatineau, have passed similar bylaws.

Savard said that unlike at fenced-in park playgrounds, children play in the street in ways that are unstructured and spontaneous, all of which positively contributes to their development. Whether hosting a street hockey game or providing a pavement canvas for chalk art, the street gives children a space to socialize that is close enough for parents to monitor, Savard said.

Louise de Lannoy, executive director of Outdoor Play Canada, agrees. She said more free play in the street means less time being sedentary and staring at screens.

"If that play can happen in natural space, the benefits are even greater. But really any form of outdoor play is beneficial for children's physical, mental, emotional, social and environmental health and well-being," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2024.

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