Pride Toronto's new wristband drinking program denounced as too invasive

The wristbands allow festival-goers to carry alcohol almost anywhere at the events — but they can be searched by security at any point too
June 20, 2018, 4:38pm
via Wikimedia Commons

Yann Gracia has been attending Toronto Pride for the past two years, but this year Gracia plans to skip the parade entirely over what some people see as unreasonable policing tactics.

Last week Pride Toronto unveiled “Drink and Carry,” a new pilot program that will give event-goers the option to carry their drink almost anywhere on festival grounds with the purchase of a $25 wristband.

But Gracia and other members of Toronto’s LGBTQ community worry that the terms and conditions associated with this new program will do more harm to the community.

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According to the terms and conditions of the program, those who purchase a wristband will not only be subject to an ID check at the entrance of the event, participants must also present their ID whenever requested by a member of security or crew.

Security guards are also given the power to search any person or property on the event site at any time. The terms and conditions go on to say that by purchasing a wristband, participants waive their right to a trial by jury in respect of any dispute in connection with the program. While the policy adopts similar language to wristband policies at other festivals in the city, critics see it as a problematic encroachment on what should be open space, especially given the community’s hostile experience with how it has been policed.

“I think it's horrible that Pride Toronto is using security and harm reduction workers to police folks,” Yann said. “This is a way of bringing security to the space knowing that people of colour are going to be targeted.”

Some compare the ID checks to the highly criticized police policy of street checks, known in Toronto as “carding,” although provincial rules prohibit police from carding people arbitrarily, and state police must warn people they are not under any obligation to comply. Others see the program as a cash grab, while many commenters on Pride’s Facebook page expressed confusion about how the program will work and who would be subject to searches.

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After a protest that halted the parade in 2016, Pride Toronto has attempted to improve its relationship with the community. Protesters from Black Lives Matter criticized Pride for the lack of resources and funding provided to queer people of colour and demanded that Pride take steps to be more inclusive, including banning police from marching in the parade.

Pride responded in 2017 by banning uniformed officers from marching in the parade. In recent months, relations between police and the LGBTQ community have continued to fray. There has been intense criticism that police ignored fears that a serial killer was targeting the Gay Village before the arrest of Bruce McArthur, who has been charged in the murder of eight people. Prior to this arrest, Toronto Police continuously dismissed rumors of a serial killer. It was later revealed that McArthur had been under investigation for months.

At the behest of the Pride committee, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders removed his request to allow uniformed officers to march in the parade. However, community members like Yann Gracia argue that Pride is creating new ways to police black bodies.

“It was rather short-sighted of Pride to implement this program without taking in the gravity of their terms and conditions,” said Shane Hale, who has been attending the parade for the past 15 years. He added, “Between the ID and search clause, the confiscation of medications to finally the statements about forfeiting your right to trial by jury. It seems like Pride is stripping away rights all in the name of a couple bucks for a wristband and over-priced booze.”

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Pride Toronto’s Festival Director, Collin Joseph told VICE News that the festival adopted this new program because of space issues with building developments in the area. “One of the reasons that we're doing this is because we are being pushed out from many of the properties where we currently have stages,” Collin said. “As we lose space, we have to start preparing this festival for the consumption of alcohol on the street or there just won't be any alcohol consumed within the festival footprint.”

When asked about the strict policies and language used in the terms and conditions Collin said, “We had to produce a document that ensures the Alcohol and Gaming Commission that we are following their rules and procedures in order for us to receive the special occasion permit that we were granted."

He added: “People have been bringing their own alcohol to Pride since the parade started, but we could lose our license if someone were to open up a bottle that they purchased from the liquor store and started drinking it within the permitted area. So essentially the festival is run the same way as a bar or restaurant in terms of the liquor licensing laws.”

But Christopher Hicks, a criminal lawyer with a background in alcohol policy and liquor licensing in Ontario, calls Pride’s terms and conditions concerning. “If they’re going to allow people to take their drink out of a bar and walk around, I think that's very progressive. They can ask for ID but I think any other intrusions like searches are very questionable.” He added: “A liquor license does not require people to be searched. I think any search without cause is a problem.”

The rules around Pride’s Drink and Carry program are similar to other festivals in the city like Bestival and VELD, where wristband holders are carded and searched at the entrance of the event. While the terms and conditions for VELD include a list of forbidden items, there is no mention of security searches throughout the event space.

On June 14, Pride Toronto released a statement regarding the criticism of the “Drink and Carry” program. “We are excited to be the first in Toronto to pilot a new way of consuming alcohol at a public festival,” the statement reads. “Both Pride Toronto security, volunteers and staff are trained in anti-oppressive policies and practices […] their priority is to ensure everyone is treated with respect and dignity.”

For those who don’t want to participate in the program and just take in the festival, no ID check, bag check or wristband purchase is necessary. Some still see the policy as another sign of how out of touch the organization has become with the community.

“Pride Toronto has a sketchy relationship with queer and trans people of colour,” said Arun Smith, a vocal critic of the new program. “Pride has embraced corporations and rainbow capitalism and these terms and conditions are yet another way to perpetuate the continued gentrification of queer and trans spaces.”