This is a guest blog by Mr. William van Geest,  Program Coordinator at Ecology Ottawa. He’s passionate about mobilizing people to promote and enjoy biodiversity, sustainability, and community.

Will the City of Ottawa ban fossil fuel promotion in City facilities? It’s possible.

On March 5th, after hearing almost 20 delegations from medical professionals, teachers, advocates, community organizations, and concerned community members seeking to end misleading ads promoting fossil fuels, Ottawa’s Finance and Corporate Services Committee approved a motion presented by Councillor Shawn Menard. The motion, asking staff to review the City’s Sponsorship and Advertising Policy of the city, now goes to Council for a vote on April 3.

This should be a slam dunk. The City’s current policy bans advertising inconsistent “with the City of Ottawa’s vision, mission, and values,” that compromises or contradicts any city policy, or that relates to “life-threatening products.” 

Fossil fuel advertisements indeed contradict the City’s policies on climate. City Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and committed to a full phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050. It even signed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2022.

William van Geest posing with ads promoting fossil fuels, in Ottawa.

We have first-hand experience of how climate change is life-threatening. Last year, we—and particularly our children and those with respiratory difficulties—struggled under smoke from wildfires exacerbated by climate change. We also experienced severe flooding and three tornadoes. One Barrhaven tornado damaged 125 homes. The 2022 derecho cost the City $50 million, and a family lost their father and husband

Frankly, it’s hard to see why fossil fuel promotion isn’t banned already. It couldn’t be because of revenue: Ottawa made less than $6,000 on fossil fuel ads in non-transit City facilities last year and another $7,000 in transit facilities. 

The main obstacle to a ban seems to be legal considerations. In 2019, Ottawa’s legal department concluded that municipal advertising is covered under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and thus constitutes protected free speech. However, there’s also precedent for prohibitions like the one proposed for Ottawa.

William van Geest, Program Coordinator at Ecology Ottawa, delegating for Ottawa’s Finance and Corporate Services Committee

For one thing, the current policy already bans “sponsorship or advertising from companies…whose main business is derived from the sale of tobacco.” The reasons are similar: allowing tobacco promotion would also “prove detrimental to the City’s public image,” given that tobacco is “a life-threatening product.”

Moreover, the Regina City Council passed a motion prohibiting the City from advertising or sponsorship agreements with fossil fuel companies. While the motion was eventually withdrawn, this wasn’t because of a federal legal challenge but rather because of pressure from the fossil fuel lobby and threats from Saskatchewan’s premier to withhold funding.

We’re hopeful that Ottawa City staff will acknowledge the disconnect between the City’s policies and its current allowance of fossil fuel advertisement and sponsorship and that they’ll fulfill their responsibility for keeping Ottawans safe. And who knows? Maybe higher levels of government will step up to clarify federal law relative to prohibitions like the one we and our partners are urging.

In the meantime, we at Ecology Ottawa are calling on Ottawans to support the proposed prohibition by signing a petition hosted by our partner Horizon Ottawa. We’re also following the good work that organizations like the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment are doing.

We also hope residents and advocacy groups in other Canadian municipalities demand similar prohibitions from their respective city councils. Will your municipality be next?

The blog has been edited for accuracy.