Kris Reddemann clears snow from the sidewalk with a neighbour on Southdowne Place on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Kris Reddemann clears snow from the sidewalk with a neighbour on Southdowne Place on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

OPINION: When it comes to snow clearing, governments can’t legislate civility

Court of Appeal says snow on public sidewalks is ‘the legal responsibility of the municipality’

Whenever snow falls in Chilliwack, my neighbours and I clear our sidewalks as quickly as we can.

The first person out usually clears a little further past their property line to help out the adjacent neighbour. If it’s really bad, the guy on the corner breaks out his snowblower.

Generally we all do our best to be good neighbours not only to each other, but for the dog walkers and parents with strollers and everyone else using the sidewalk.

We do not do it because we could be subject to a $200 fine under the City of Chilliwack’s Community Standards Bylaw 2021, No. 5041.

RELATED: Snowstorm wallops Chilliwack with more than 24 centimetres of snow overnight

Following carrot-and-stick motivational theory, that’s the stick, but what is the carrot?

There isn’t one and we don’t need one. What we need, and what most of us have, is simple courtesy, civility. Just be a citizen and a good neighbour.

A recent decision by the highest court in B.C. addresses the issues of being a good neighbour as well as the more practical issue of legal liability when someone falls on ice on the sidewalk in front of your house.

A 76-year-old man in Burnaby was seriously injured when he slipped on black ice on a municipal sidewalk in front of a house. So he sued the owner of that house. Darwin Der’s case against Ang Zhao and Qianqiu Huang – who had, it should be noted, shovelled the sidewalk and applied salt before the black ice formed – was thrown out by a B.C. Supreme Court justice in 2019.

Der took the case all the way to the B.C. Court of Appeal where he shifted tack slightly, “focusing on the obligation of property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks to comply with a municipal bylaw,” according to the summary of the decision.

The three justices were tasked with deciding whether or not a property owner owes a duty of care to users of municipal sidewalks to take “reasonable care” to remove snow and ice. Lower courts across Canada have rejected the existence of such a duty of care over and over.

Justice Bruce Butler dismissed the appeal: “I conclude that residential property owners do not owe a general duty of care to take reasonable care with respect to the removal of snow and ice from sidewalks adjacent to their property.”

In examining precedents from other courts on the subject, the three-member appeal court also looked to a prior decision that found a breach of a snow-clearing bylaw does not, in and of itself, give rise to legal liability.

“The snow and ice accumulating on public sidewalks and the potholes on the street in front of the house are the legal responsibility of the municipality, not the adjacent property owner.”

So there you go. A new precedent moving forward from the highest court in the province.

But this from the City of Chilliwack’s website: “The clearing of snow and ice from all other sidewalks in the city is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner or tenant.”

One could argue, and city hall might indeed argue this if pressed, the BC Court of Appeal decision does not negate their bylaw. Maybe all it means is that one citizen can’t claim legal liability of another citizen who doesn’t clear the sidewalk.

At a minimum, let’s say the high court decision tests the legal standing of the city’s snow-clearing bylaw. But even if it overturns it completely, I prefer to look to the so-called “shopping cart theory” that went viral on social media online last year. Returning a shopping cart to its rightful place in a grocery store parking lot is the right thing to do even if there is no reward for doing it or punishment for not doing it.

“The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing,” as an anonymous author puts it.

Wearing masks and getting vaccinated amid a global pandemic is another great moral test of civility over selfishness.

Most of us do all these things as good neighbours and citizens. It is aberrant behaviour by the pathological Libertarian who refuses to wear a mask to protect others, return shopping carts, or shovel sidewalks.

Governments can make all the laws they want, but carrots and sticks don’t make us good neighbours.

You can’t legislate the citizenry into civility.


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