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Bear-spray incidents on the rise in Edmonton schools, police data shows

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Dominic Tobin, 12, was riding his scooter near Londonderry School. He saw some teens playing basketball and tried to spark a conversation.

“I said, ‘Nice shot,’ and then a guy stuck a finger up at me, and I said, ‘What’s that for?’” said Tobin.

“Then, I don’t know how many [teens] just started flooding out of the basketball court chasing me.”

They chased Tobin to a stranger’s home. A Ring doorbell camera caught part of the confrontation.

“They were like, ‘Tell me you’re sorry and get on your knees.’ I did because I was scared and I didn’t want nothing to happen,” said Tobin.

Tobin said he was then attacked with bear spray.

“My friend was giving me snow so I can try to wipe it off my face and get it out of my eyes,” said Tobin.

“The smell was so bad.”

Dominic Tobin after he was bear sprayed. (Supplied)

Tobin’s mother, Natasha Tobin-Quintal, arrived shortly after. She said her son has lung problems so she was extremely concerned.

“He was unable to open his eyes, frantically asking for water,” said Tobin-Quintal.

“People who end up getting pepper sprayed or bear maced, that can throw them into an asthmatic fit and cause terrible respiratory issues.”

According to the Edmonton Police Service, between 2015 and 2023, there have been nearly 3,000 bear spray, or other Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray incidents where the victims were under the age of 19.

These kinds of assaults are on the rise at Edmonton schools. In 2015, police responded to only three violent occurrences where caustic spray was the most serious weapon or there was a victim injured due to the use of caustic spray. In 2023, that number nearly tripled to 29. These numbers do not include occurrences where bear spray was confiscated at school.

“It’s common. It’s easy to get,” said Tobin-Quintal.

Caustic spray incidents.

The City of Edmonton is hoping to limit access with changes to the current bylaw. If approved, it would be illegal to sell bear OC spray to anyone under the age of 18. Businesses would need a licence to sell it, record transactions, and make sure it is safely secured away from the public. Any sellers who violate the minimum age requirement could face a fine of $2,000.

“The amendments are to try to minimize the amount of bear spray in the wrong hands,” said Coun. Tim Cartmell.

“The law is saying to the parents that your kids ought not to do this."

The changes to the bylaw came at the request of EPS after it saw a sharp rise in OC spray-related occurrences across the city.

“Bylaws like this set the standard of what the city wants to see in terms of behaviour and conduct in our public spaces,” said Cartmell.

Criminologist Dan Jones believes that a stricter bylaw isn’t going to stop minors from getting their hands on bear spray.

“Alcohol has been illegal for under 18 people for years, and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of under 18 people that are drinking,” said Jones.

Jones said what’s more important is finding out the reason why so many minors feel the need to carry it.

“What’s creating that unsafe feeling? Is it a part of gangs? What is going on? Sometimes we put a band-aid with a bylaw rather than dig deep into what the root cause is, and I think that we need to do that a little bit more.”

If an individual uses bear spray with the intent of harming someone else, it is considered a prohibited weapon, and can result in weapons charges.

Council is expected to vote on the bylaw in July.