“Our ability to picnic freely has been constrained by draconian rules”: This Toronto business owner is calling on the city to declare Picnic Day a new municipal holiday
Starting tomorrow, citizens of Toronto will be able to legally crack a cold one in 27 different parks across the city—part of a new council-approved pilot program that will run through the Thanksgiving long weekend. This decriminalization of what has become a pretty common behaviour is a long time coming, according to advocates such as Ben Leszcz, the Toronto-based co-founder of Wilda Natural Spritzers, who is calling on the city to declare today a municipal holiday. The proposed Picnic Day would be a chance for Torontonians to spend time in their public green spaces—and a boon for local food and bottle shops still feeling the pandemic pinch. Here, Leszcz talks about how the city’s new pilot could strengthen our social fabric and why it’s not just about getting sloshed.
Related: Councillor James Pasternak on his opposition to the Alcohol in Parks Pilot Program
You’re proposing a new holiday: Picnic Day. How come?
A lot of my job involves going around to different bars and restaurants and bottle shops. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with industry people about the new pilot program. It feels like a real milestone for Toronto and one that’s worth celebrating. My team and I came up with the idea for Picnic Day because not only are picnics are a quintessential summer activity but, for so long, our ability to picnic freely has been constrained by these draconian rules. To mark this new chapter, we thought, Why not have a day off to spend time having fun and socializing outdoors? Obviously Covid led to a lot of people feeling very isolated, proving that public outdoor spaces play a vital role—particularly for those who don’t have access to private yards or balconies. These connections and loose ties that we form with neighbours and even complete strangers can bring joy and strengthen the fabric of society. The more we feel connected to the people around us, the stronger our motivation to take care of everybody, the stronger our sense of obligation to our fellow citizens and to our natural environment.
I’m getting goosebumps, but what does any of this have to do with drinking alcohol?
It’s not a question of needing alcohol to have fun but rather of destigmatizing the most human of social behaviours. Since Neolithic times, at least, humans have understood the elemental role of alcohol in decreasing inhibitions and facilitating creativity, relaxation and social cohesion. I already talked about the importance of these casual connections in our society, and I think coming together over a drink plays a key part in that.
Not to be an ant at your picnic, but we already have a holiday long weekend coming up. Is this not overkill?
I don’t think so. A significant portion of the population uses long weekends as an opportunity to leave town. Long weekends aren’t as good for local business as you might think. So what we’re saying is, why not have a day off during the week that people can spend in parks, buying some to-go drinks from local bars and restaurants—particularly this new generation of pandemic-born bottle shops. For this year, we chose August 2, but going forward it could be the first Wednesday in August, or the first sunny day after that if the forecast is calling for rain—but today is looking good.
Would picnicking be enforced? Or could I, hypothetically, spend Picnic Day sleeping until 2 p.m. and then vegging out on the couch?
I think that part of a flourishing city is the desire of its citizens to participate in communal experiences, so the hope is that Picnic Day would be a reason for everyone to get outside and enjoy themselves. You could play Frisbee, you could play Spikeball…
Let’s be real, though: you’re in the booze business. Are you actually thinking that Picnic Day could happen or is it more of a publicity stunt?
We sent our proposal to Mayor Chow’s and Premier Ford’s offices. The logistics of executing a municipal-only civic holiday are above my pay grade, but we are hopeful that we will get their attention. There’s that Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If the mayor or the premier are reading this, I would encourage them to act fast, because Picnic Day is upon us.
Opponents to the new pilot project have said that it will encourage and normalize what is already a problematic drinking culture. You don’t agree?
There’s no denying that alcohol has a dark side. When my partner and I founded Wilda in 2021, that was something we reckoned with. In terms of our particular business, we’ve tried as much as possible to create a product that allows people to enjoy the positive benefits of alcohol while consuming responsibly—we make a cherry spritzer that’s only 2.5 per cent ABV. Of course I understand that people are going to drink what they want to drink and that some excess is inevitable. My hope is that creating an institution around Picnic Day will come with a set of norms and expectations, and responsible consumption will be among those.
What about concerns around litter, rowdiness, people using public space like it’s their own personal toilet?
Those are all very legitimate concerns, and when I talk about a new chapter for the city, I think that needs to include improvement of public services in parks, all of which will be critical to the success of this project. It’s still a pilot project, and our proposed Picnic Day is based on the assumption that it will become permanent. We are optimistic that it will happen. Where we are culturally right now, drinking in parks is not as controversial as it used to be. The Toronto police did not issue a single public drinking ticket last year.
And not because people aren’t drinking in parks.
Exactly. At a certain point, the legal or regulatory framework becomes so far out of step with the cultural reality that the way people act and the values they hold tend to trump any legal issues. If there are stumbles along the way with the pilot projects, the culprits will be the lack of adequate infrastructure. Public urination would be because of a lack of available bathrooms, and intoxication could reflect, at least in part, a lack of access to free drinking water in parks.
I’m with you on the washrooms part, but I’m not sure that water fountains are going to prevent anyone from getting inappropriately sloshed.
Okay, fair. But that kind of intoxication reflects a less-healthy relationship with alcohol, and when you look around the world, there is a clear correlative relationship between prohibition and irresponsible consumption of alcohol. Let’s look to the States, where many college students are not the legal drinking age. The newest cultural phenomenon sweeping college campuses is called a BORG. Do you know what that is?
No, tell me!
It stands for Blackout Rage Gallon. You take flavoured, electrolyte-boosted drink mixes and put them into a one-gallon water bottle with a fifth of vodka—or whatever kind of alcohol you can get your hands on. Only in a culture where it’s illegal to drink until you’re 21 would minors turn to that sort of thing.
So you’re not anticipating any BORGs at Picnic Day?
I hope not. Wilda is staunchly anti-BORG. Not only because BORGs are an emblem of dangerous binge drinking but because they are neither natural nor delicious.
Where will you be later today?
At Trinity Bellwoods—which is close to where I live—with a cooler and probably a few extra Wildas for my friends. I’ll be the the guy on the long-tail bike. The seat is big enough for my three kids or my cooler. Today, it will be my cooler.