Andrew Snowdon

Vignette: Smoke and Mirrors

In Ottawa on Saturday 3 September 2011 at 22:29

There appears to be an anomaly in the City of Ottawa’s anti-smoking by-laws.

Last week, the Ottawa Public Health Twitter account posted a link to information about the health risks of shisha.  As shisha (also known by a whole lot of other names) is basically molasses-soaked tobacco smoked through a communal water-pipe (known sometimes as a hookah), this is no surprise.  It is accepted wisdom that smoke inhalation carries with it certain inherent health risks.

Smoking in public places, such as shopping malls, has been banned in Ottawa since about 1995.  It’s been against the by-laws to smoke in bars and restaurants for a few years now; I think the last over-21 cigar lounge closed shop a few years ago (to be replaced with Yet Another Uns-Uns Bar).  Smoking is still permitted on unenclosed patios, but that’s being gradually phased out too.  You can’t smoke within spitting distance of a bus stop, a government building entrance (which could be anywhere in Ottawa), or a healthcare facility.  Within the year, it’ll be illegal in public parks as well.

In short, in Ottawa smoking—let alone smoking indoors—is officially frowned upon.

You may imagine my surprise, then, when I first visited Garlic Corner (at the corner of York and Dalhousie in Ottawa’s historic Byward Market) and found that, in addition to being licensed, this shawarma spot offered free shisha to its customers.  They just bring out a big ol’ hookah, put it on your table, light your choice of flavoured shisha, and you and your friends sit there puffing away on the damn thing.  It’s not a secret—in fact the large, full-colour sign advertising this free perk is as prominent as their sign advertising vegan breakfast.  (I used to live two blocks away.  I still don’t think I went there often enough.)

I had visions of sitting in the place, enjoying a Large (because their Really Large is actually Ridiculously Huge) falafel sandwich, when all of a sudden a team of by-law officers bursts in through the windows, wrestles a table of short-short–wearing Lebanese girls to the ground, and fines everyone for Conspiracy to Smoke Tobacco Indoors.

I figured it was only a matter of time.

On Saturday, my friend Jean-Pierre and I were kicking around in the downtown heat, looking for refreshment.  At my urging, we bypassed Dunn’s Deli in favour of Garlic Corner.  While he bought himself an iced tea and got us a seat with a view, I got in line to order a sandwich.

Behind two by-law officers.

Probably these gentlemen got the impression I thought they were cute, the way I kept sneaking sideways glances at them.  I was dimly aware that outside on the (enclosed) patio, a couple was smoking cigarettes at their table.  At any moment one of the officers would notice, and the other one would turn around and see the sign offering Free Flagrant Flaunting of Ottawa’s Anti-Smoking By-Laws.  Great, I thought, I’m not going to get my falafel sandwich because they’re going to shut the place down.  One of the officers leaned in closer to his partner.

“They have shots,” he said, pointing at a sign advertising the availability of cheap, colourful shooters in what looked like test tubes on a desert island.  The guy behind the counter was slicing off chicken for their sandwiches.

“Hey,” the other officer asked, “has your beer always been this cheap?”  He pointed at another sign.  “How do the bars around here compete?”  I looked directly at them, and I’m sure my mouth was open.

“We probably shouldn’t have one,” said the first officer.  I was about to say no, you’re in uniform, when my eyes re-focused on the table between and behind the officers, where the waitress had just set down a hookah for a couple.

Here we go, I thought, the moment of truth.

Then: I’m not going to get my bloody sandwich.

However, the two by-law officers did not appear interested in the slightest.  There’s no way they could have missed the shisha—on the table, the whole contraption comes up to about eye-level, oh and it emits smoke.  But there wasn’t even a raised eyebrow.  They simply paid for their sandwiches and left.


Either there’s a loophole in the by-law you could blow smoke rings through (which, as an inveterate pipe smoker and proponent of civil disobedience, fills me with hopeful optimism) or these guys are rather openly on the take.

I suppose I’ll have to read through the by-laws to find out.

In the meantime, I shall continue to enjoy the anomaly.


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