A North Vancouver street musician is challenging the city's efforts to pull the plug on her act, saying the municipality's noise bylaw is a violation of her rights.
Megan Regehr, better known on the North Shore and around North America under her stage name Babe Coal, has received three $100-fines from bylaw enforcement officers in recent weeks because she uses a microphone and amp when she performs her jazz-soul tunes in the Civic Plaza.
Regehr and her manager Mitch Barnes contend the bylaw amounts to an infringement on her fundamental freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"I see . . . my microphone and my amplifier (as) part of my expression. That's my art form," said Regehr. "(Without them), I couldn't be heard. I whisper when I sing. I'm a crooner. . . . I wouldn't be heard above the vehicles on the street."
Regehr compared it to giving an artist the right to paint but then outlawing canvas, brushes and colours.
Barnes put it more bluntly. "Our basic argument is simple: No government in Canada, while the Charter of Rights exists, has the ability to interfere with freedom of expression," he said.
Regehr remains defiant and insists she will keep playing and singing plugged in until she has her fines dropped and the bylaw is struck down. She and Barnes plan to represent themselves when they appeal the fines in Supreme Court as soon as her case can be heard.
While the charter is clear that everyone has the right to expression, Barnes concedes that it makes no mention of mics or amps. But that doesn't mean they aren't part of Regehr's expression, he argues.
"The charter was left ambiguous for a reason; it wasn't meant to be undermined," he said. "It was meant to be imposing."
Regehr and Barnes have had several productive and friendly discussions with the city's manager of bylaws Brad McRae, said the singer, but the two sides are at an impasse.
McRae offered Regehr a chance to take out a permit that would allow for amped music, similar to those used by vendors at the farmers' market held in the plaza on Wednesdays, but Barnes said that is a non-starter on principle.
"We absolutely will not ever have her enter into, on public lands, a licensing agreement to express herself whatsoever," he said.
The bylaw is part of a worrying trend of governments "slowly imposing themselves where they don't belong," Barnes added.
Regehr said that she feels for her fellow street performers across Canada who face similar restrictions while trying to practise their art and make a living.
After performances, Regehr asks listeners to sign her petition calling on the councils of Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver to repeal any bylaws that may infringe on expression rights.
Among the signatories is Bruce Hawkshaw, former city clerk, who signed after asking her a few questions, said Regehr.
"He signed it, and as I was walking out, he said "The reason I was wondering was because I wrote that bylaw,'" she said.
As staff issued one of the recent tickets, a passerby noticed and was inspired to sign, said Barnes.
"A Persian gentleman was signing her (petition). He was almost in tears when he saw her being written up. He said: 'This is why I left my country,'" Barnes said.
But the city is sticking to its guns, saying it only enforces the noise bylaw after someone has made a complaint, which Regehr's mic and amp have drawn, according to city manager McRae. Speaking to the North Shore News, he could not say how many complaints or who made them, however.
"What I can say is they are numerous and consistent," he said.
Regehr called that "B.S.," saying she has only ever had support from the neighbouring businesses.
Speaking to the News, the managers and staff at Money Mart, the Eighties restaurant, Ocean Wellness and Scotiabank all praised Regehr and her music.
"Why would we file a complaint when we can't even hear her?" said James Findlay, Money Mart manager. "Customers come in and say, 'Isn't that beautiful?'"
In the meantime, McRae said he will continue to have his officers issue tickets as long as Regehr refuses to unplug.
"Unless I'm formally directed in council, I am in charge of dealing with the bylaws," he said.
"The issue is not busking; the issue is not the city going after an individual. The issue is the complaints about amplification. We are responding to complaints. We are not actively hunting this down."
Prior to taking to North Vancouver streets and venues, Regehr, as Babe Coal, had a regular gig at B.B. King's blues club in Nashville, Tennessee.