What began as a protest against the construction of a crematorium in a Corner Brook neighbourhood has turned into a constitutional and human rights matter.

The province’s third-largest city has issued a second round of letters to residents who erected signs on their properties in protest of the planned construction of a crematorium in their neighbourhood. Similar letters were previously distributed in March, but most of those residents have defied the city’s request to remove the signs.

Corner Brook now faces a crucial decision over whether to take action against the protestors and face a possible legal battle over residents’ constitutionally-protected right to freedom of expression. It also must respond to a provincial human rights complaint from one of those residents.

A lawyer for the municipality has advised Mayor Jim Parsons and city council that the municipality’s bylaws and development regulations are not aligned with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that regulations should be updated to avoid similar situations in future.

In the meantime, Parsons said the city is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He says the funeral home owner has complained that the signs are hurting his business—and since the signs technically violate the municipality’s development regulations, the city is compelled to enforce the laws.

Uncertainty About Health Impacts a Risks Residents Aren’t Willing to Take

In response to Country Haven Funeral Home owner Dwayne Parsons’ plans to add the crematorium to his business on Country Road—situated on a lot designated as a community services zone in a residential neighbourhood—dozens of residents posted signs on their properties last fall in protest. Some are concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts from emissions. Others are protesting the city’s efforts to have the signs removed.

The issue has been simmering for years but came to a head last October following a failed attempt by some residents to have the city’s May 2021 approval overturned.

Dozens of Country Road residents, and some in other parts of the city, continued their protest into the spring, erecting more signs opposing the crematorium’s planned location—which they say may expose them to smoke they don’t want to see and pollutants they don’t want to breathe.

More than 150 letters were delivered to residents living within 250 metres of the funeral home, inviting their input. Nine residents supported the crematorium and 86 were opposed.

Despite the overwhelming opposition from those living closest to the funeral home, the city council based its May 2021 approval on other factors. These included a referral from the city’s planning department, a review of other municipalities that indicates crematoria are often located near private residences, and a letter from the province’s Pollution Prevention Division to the funeral home indicating it “does not foresee any air quality issues” with the installation of the cremation system unit as long as its use conforms to certain standards.

Mayor Jim Parsons says the city has received a complaint that residents’ protest signs are hurting Country Haven Funeral Home’s business, and that the business’s clients find some signs “distasteful.” (Photo: Justin Brake.)

Opponents point out, however, the absence of municipal, provincial or federal guidelines to regulate or monitor crematoria—and that the levels of toxins emitted into the air depend on factors that would ultimately go unmonitored.

The city also based its decision on a 2020 report from the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health that explored primary human health concerns around the carcinogens, neurotoxins, and other toxins that can bioaccumulate in humans. It says that despite the combustion of human remains emitting known carcinogens and toxins, “no studies have been found that show causal links between crematoria emissions and adverse health effects.”

The report also notes that an absence of relevant data for emissions and air quality monitoring near crematoria “limits the ability to fully assess exposures and health impacts.” It concludes that a “precautionary approach could be adopted that includes following best practice recommendations for design, operation, monitoring and maintenance of crematoria.”

It’s this lack of regulation and monitoring—coupled with uncertainty around potential adverse health effects—that has many residents on edge about a risk they say they’re not willing to take.

Development Regulations vs. Charter Rights

In March 2022, the city issued a letter to some of the nearby residents explaining their signs violate municipal development regulations and require a permit. The letter also said the city doesn’t have a process to issue permits, so residents were required to take their signs down by April 1.

“A review of this file will occur in the near future to ensure your anticipated cooperation with regard to this matter,” an unsigned letter delivered to one resident states. “Please be reminded that failure to comply may result in further action being taken by the City of Corner Brook.”

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says municipal bylaws are often incongruent with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that it’s up to municipalities to align local laws with the Constitution. 

“They need to look at their bylaws and assess whether they’ve covered the field in terms of what they need to address,” she told The Independent, adding “the Constitution says that if you’re going to restrict people’s rights to express themselves you need to have a good reason for doing so, and you need to do so in a way that is proportionate to your objective, and that is minimally intrusive.”

After residents ignored the March letter from the city and began citing their constitutional right to protest, city council requested a legal review of its bylaws and development regulations in light of the potential for a constitutional challenge.

That legal opinion, from city solicitor Lorilee Sharpe, was produced to city council and city manager Rodney Cumby on April 12. But it was withheld from the public until council—whose members are split on the matter—voted during a May 31 meeting to release it. 

In her memo to the city, Sharpe notes the development regulations don’t allow for signs—or permits to erect signs—in residential medium density zones, where the funeral home is located.

She cautions that Corner Brook’s development regulation banning signage in those zones “is a violation of the right to freedom of expression under s. 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” and that the city’s regulation “would likely fail” a legal test courts would use to determine whether a limitation on a person’s right to freedom of expression is justified.

Sharpe recommends the city amend its regulations to comply with the Constitution, and “should at a minimum provide for a mechanism to allow temporary permits for signs,” she writes.

Signs like this one dot the neighbourhood where Country Haven Funeral Home (in background) is located. (Photo: Justin Brake.)

Amending the city’s regulations could take six to eight months, Mayor Parsons told The Independent in a recent interview. In the meantime, he says he and council have no say in whether city bylaw enforcement issues fines to residents.

On May 26, several residents received a second letter from the city, offering an extension on the previous deadline to remove the signs. This time, residents were given until June 3 to take them down. “An inspection will be completed to ensure compliance,” reads the letter, signed by the city’s development inspector James King, who says the city may lay charges if the signs aren’t taken down.

“We have had a specific complaint about these signs, and the complainant pointed out that not only is it damaging their business, in their point of view, but more importantly they pointed out rightly that [the signs] are not legal under our regulations,” Parsons told The Independent.

The mayor said the funeral home owner was not required to provide any evidence that the signs were in fact hurting his business. Parsons said the funeral home’s “clients are taking exception to it,” and that they find at least one sign depicting a skull and crossbones—often used to symbolize poison, toxicity or harmful substances—”distasteful” and “somewhat disgusting,’” he explained. 

“But they pointed out that the signs are also not legal, so it is a legitimate complaint,” Parsons continued. “And based on what we’ve been told by staff and in our legal opinion, we have to act.”

The Independent reached out to Country Haven Funeral Home owner Dwayne Parsons to request an interview, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

In May 2021 city councillor Vaughn Granter proposed that the city explore offering Country Haven an alternate location for its crematorium outside of a residential neighbourhood, but that option was not pursued.

Senior Files Human Rights Complaint

On May 6, a senior living near the funeral home filed a complaint with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission. In her complaint, Cathy Peddle—a lead organizer in the protest—alleges she was “treated differently” and “harassed” by the city on the grounds of her political opinion and age. 

“I feel I am being discriminated against because I am a senior and because I don’t have the financial means to hire a lawyer and fight back, because my neighborhood is not influential but rather low income,” Peddle writes in her complaint. She says she feels “discriminated against” because she was one of just eight residents who received a letter, despite many more residents erecting signs on their properties.

The human rights commission accepted Peddle’s complaint and notified her on May 17 that it would share the complaint with the respondent. The City of Corner Brook declined comment on the matter.

Peddle, a mother and grandmother, helped organize a protest outside city hall on May 30 to coincide with a city council meeting. Holding a sign reading “We will not be silent,” she told The Independent that the mayor and council are not giving enough weight to residents’ wishes.

Last year residents were protesting the location of a planned crematorium in their neighbourhood. Now they’re also protesting what they say is an attempt by City of Corner Brook to stifle their freedom of expression. (Photo: Justin Brake.)

No Consideration to Mental Health Impacts

“A lot of people think it’s just a physical health issue, but it’s more the mental health issue for me,” Peddle said, explaining she regularly feels sad when she sees distraught families coming out of the funeral home. The constant reminder of death and loss are enough, but having to see or smell smoke or fumes from the burning of human bodies is more than she can handle, she said.

Corner Brook resident Nita Knight, who doesn’t live near the funeral home but is protesting in solidarity, agrees that the city should be considering the psychological impact a crematorium would have on those living around it.

“I don’t know a lot about emissions [but] I do know I don’t want them floating around me,” she said at the protest. “I do know a fair bit about emotions though, and this is disturbing people’s peace—and that’s the one thing that people will understand: how this makes them feel.”

Ellen Wareham, another senior who attended the protest and also lives on Country Road, said she feels residents are being treated unfairly by the city. “I got a letter,” she said. “To my left, the second door down from me, didn’t get a letter—but he’s got a huge ‘No Crematorium’ sign.”

“I think we’re being targeted. I think they’re trying to intimidate us. And I think that if they can shut this core group up, I think they think it’ll go away.”

Another Country Road resident, Janet Oram, said “it’s not cremation” that residents are against. “It’s the location.”

“Everybody suffers grief, but some grieve longer than others,” she said, explaining that as kids she and others played in the former schoolyard where the funeral home now sits. “Most of us remember that as a happy place. Then the funeral home went in and everyone bit their tongue—had no other choice. But the thoughts of seeing smoke or a smell coming from a crematorium,” Oram said, shaking her head.

Wareham said she survived cancer last year and in the process spent a lot of time in her home, where she could only get fresh air by opening windows. Now she’s concerned about the potential air quality—“that I’m going to breathe that at night in the summer when it’s hot and you want to open your window.”

The city’s revised June 3 deadline came and went without incident, but residents say they’re on standby and plan to fight any fines or charges leveled against them.  

Wareham said she won’t be removing her signs, or will find creative ways to convey the same message from her property. Ultimately, though, she believes the matter has now grown into a bigger issue.

“The mayor telling me I have to take down my signage, to me, is an infringement on my freedom of speech as a Canadian,” she said. “I told my son about it and he was furious. He said, mom, people have died for the right for us to have freedom of speech.”

“How can the mayor just take away our freedom of speech? I don’t understand it.”

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Justin Brake (he/him) is an independent journalist from Newfoundland who currently lives on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa.