Montreal borough can restrict fast food restaurants for health reasons: court

MONTREAL — A Quebec judge has upheld a Montreal borough’s bylaw that limited where new fast food restaurants could open as part of a broader health initiative.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc St-Pierre ruled against an industry association representing a number of fast food chains that had sought to overturn the municipal law.

“The court is of the opinion that the borough was perfectly entitled to regulate the businesses it calls ‘fast food restaurants’ by virtue of its general powers,” St-Pierre wrote in his Oct. 30 decision.

Citing a desire to promote healthy eating, the Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough — the city’s largest — passed a zoning bylaw in 2016 that limits new fast food restaurants to two major streets and a shopping centre.

Restaurants Canada, an association representing Canada’s food service industry that was the lead plaintiff, says it is considering “all available options” after the ruling.

It had argued the local lawmakers went too far and that provincial law does not give municipalities the power to establish zoning on the basis of their citizens’ personal nutritional choices. It also said the law was discriminatory because the borough would apply a different treatment to restaurants not considered to be fast food operations.

“Quebec law allows for a 30-day period to file an appeal of the judge’s decision on this matter,” the association said in a statement, declining further comment.

Coun. Marvin Rotrand, who proposed the bylaw, said he’s pleased the courts have found in the borough’s favour, adding that he hopes other boroughs and municipalities will follow suit.

“It would have been a significant loss for municipalities right across Quebec if we’d lost this judgment, because it would have restricted what a municipality could actually do,” Rotrand said.

The longtime city councillor said fast food establishments were defined in the bylaw as restaurants that had throwaway packaging and cutlery, no table service and food made to be eaten quickly on the spot.

Rotrand said the borough has introduced policies in recent years to promote healthy lifestyles and healthier neighbourhoods through such measures as promoting farmers markets, promoting active transport and encouraging the sale of fresh produce in smaller shops.

With that in the mind, the borough made a conscious decision to limit new fast food restaurants to the three distinct locations, which also keeps them away from schools. Rotrand called the measure reasonable.

“It doesn’t mean that we banned fast food anywhere else. In essence, we said they had acquired rights and they could continue operating,” Rotrand said of existing restaurants. “But if a fast food (restaurant) closed and somebody else wanted to go in there, they wouldn’t necessarily get a permit.”

Kevin Bilodeau, the director of government relations with the Quebec chapter of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, welcomed the decision.

He said children, and Canadians in general, eat too much unhealthy food, and obesity rates have tripled since the 1980s. “We hope that this initiative will give good ideas to other cities looking to adopt programs,” Bilodeau said.

Healthy eating advocates note that Quebec has a good program encouraging nutritional choices in school cafeterias, but they often have trouble competing with fast food readily available nearby.

Corinne Voyer of the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems said the ruling is a good first step after mixed legal opinions on whether municipalities could block the proliferation of such establishments.

“The response now is yes, and we’re happy with the judgment,” Voyer said. “We were expecting this type of response. It’s why the city went to court and felt it was legitimate to bring about such a bylaw.”

She acknowledged that limiting fast food restaurants is just part of the battle against “our collective obesity problem.” Voyer said other factors, including sleep, interaction with food and physical activity are equally important.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2019.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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