As Ottawa struggles to smoke out underground shisha bars, owners plead for understanding

To reach the popular hookah lounge in Ottawa’s Blossom Park neighbourhood, patrons pass through an unmarked door near the dumpsters at the rear of the building, then climb a flight of stairs to another unmarked door where a security camera guards against unwanted visitors.Those granted entry pass into a spacious, brightly lit room full of tables and chairs where dozens of young men and women sit in groups talking and sipping tea as they take turns puffing on water pipes. A haze hangs in the air as Middle Eastern music spills from speakers and a basketball game dominates the lounge’s wall-mounted TVs.The mood is calm and convivial, offering no hint that what’s going on here is illegal, the modern-day equivalent of a Prohibition-era speakeasy.According to Ottawa’s bylaw department, there are currently 13 clandestine shisha lounges known to be operating in the city, down from more than twice that number just five years ago.Bylaw officials acknowledge there could be more that they don’t know about. Hiding in plain sightIn fact, most are hiding in plain sight. Several venues advertise openly, and some post photos and videos of their establishments online.Some operate like private clubs, so you need to know someone to get in. In some cases, members are given key cards to enter.Underground shisha lounges like this one in Ottawa are operating as modern-day speakeasies. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)The owners of these businesses say it doesn’t need to be this way. They say smoking shisha is a social custom central to their cultural identity, and that of many of their patrons.”For us, the shisha is a way to bring people together,” explained Fadi Lteif, owner of south Ottawa shisha supplier My Hookah Canada, as well as an illegal lounge. “We talk about life, how the day was,” he said.”Smoking shisha is very common in the Middle East,” agreed Hussein Houseini, whose background is Lebanese. “Any restaurant or any establishment you go to in the Middle East … every single one sells shisha.” Houseini said smoking shisha serves the same social function in that culture as grabbing a beer after work does in Canada. “For us as Muslims, we don’t drink,” he said. “Since drinking is prohibited, we smoke shisha at gatherings.” ‘Nothing deters them’CBC recently visited several shisha lounges in Ottawa including Lteif’s establishment. Lteif describes his lounge as a private club and claims to know everyone who walks through the door. Though he claims to earn little profit from the lounge, he said he’s spent thousands of dollars on an efficient ventilation system to keep the air inside relatively clear.Lteif said his patrons are well aware of the health risks associated with smoking any form of tobacco, but that doesn’t discourage them.”People keep coming to us, they want to smoke,” he told CBC. “Nothing deters them from coming to smoke.” Fadi Lteif, owner of an Ottawa-based hookah supplier as well as an illegal lounge, says smoking shisha brings his community together. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)Lteif feels strongly that the city’s amended bylaw, and the current crackdown, is an infringement on his freedom to observe an age-old custom that’s central to his cultural identity.”I own my lounge because I like my culture and I want to practise it in Canada,” he said.Instead, Lteif and others say the tickets and fines are forcing them underground. Strict rules, steep finesIn 2001, Ottawa city council passed a bylaw to ban smoking in restaurants, bars and bingo parlours. Five years later, the city banned hookah smoking in public spaces citing how hookah smoking carries many health risks, but extended a grace period to allow business owners to adapt before enforcement began in earnest.Some appear to have used the time to batten down the hatches.The set fine for smoking shisha indoors in Ottawa is $320, but can rise much higher for repeat offences. Business owners, landlords and even patrons can be ticketed. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)”Sometimes the doors will be locked. They won’t permit us entry,” said Jennifer Therkelsen, program manager of enforcement services with the city’s bylaw department. Before they can issue a fine, bylaw officers must find evidence that patrons were smoking shisha, Therkelsen said. If they can’t gain entry to a business, that can be difficult to prove.According to the city’s smoking and vaping bylaw, employers, proprietors, property owners and others may be charged for permitting smoking of water pipes in an enclosed public place or workplace including outdoor restaurants and bar patios.Patrons may also face fines for smoking water pipes in those places. Even the simple display of a water pipe is prohibited if it contains any smoking product.The set fine is $320, however repeat offenders can receive a summons requiring them to appear in provincial offences court where a justice of the peace could impose significantly higher fines of up to $100,000. The city’s bylaw department says that’s rare, seen only in extreme circumstances. Jennifer Therkelsen, who’s in charge of enforcement for the city’s bylaw department, insists bankrupting businesses isn’t the goal of the current crackdown. (Jean Delisle/CBC)Bylaw cracking downLast year, bylaw officers carried out 61 shisha-related inspections, issuing 28 charges against eight businesses. So far this year, bylaw officers issued 27 fines against nine establishments between Jan. 1 and March 27, suggesting the city is hardening its approach.Therkelsen insists bankrupting businesses, many of which also operate as legitimate cafés, isn’t the goal of the crackdown.”There’s just no reason for us to step in and completely shut the place down,” she said.At the same time, Therkelsen said she’s seen repeat offenders close and file for bankruptcy, only to reopen under a new name — sometimes with the same owners, sometimes with different ones.Brian Mahmoud believes there are at least twice as many shisha lounges in Ottawa than the city knows about. One section of Mahmoud’s restaurant, Lebanese Palace, also operated as a shisha bar before the ban. He said he was forced to shutter his shisha business after the bylaw was amended to target both non-compliant business owners and their landlords. Lteif claims to know everyone who walks through the door of his shisha lounge. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)After Lebanese Palace was raided, Mahmoud’s landlord gave him 24 hours to cease his shisha operation or lose his lease. “That shut me down,” he said. “So I had to stop the shisha.” Now a section of his lounge on Industrial Avenue sits empty most of the time, reserved for special events such as weddings and baby showers. He’ll sometimes bring a band in on a Friday, but said it’s difficult to fill the place with no shisha on offer.”I’ll be lucky if I can get 30 people in here, because by 10, 11 o’clock everybody’s gone to their shisha bars or the underground shisha,” Mahmoud said.Frustrated and bleeding money, Mahmoud filed a Charter challenge against the city in 2017, but later dropped it when that, too, proved too costly a year later.”We had it all here, but the city took it away,” Mahmoud lamented.’Let us practise our culture’The city’s smoking bylaw does allow for certain accommodations when tobacco is used for traditional cultural or spiritual purposes. According to the bylaw, Indigenous people are allowed to smoke or carry lit tobacco for traditional ceremonies. Brian Mahmoud’s restaurant Lebanese Palace, left, operated as a shisha bar before the ban, right. (Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC)Instead of banning shisha altogether, Lteif would like to see a similar exemption extended to people who claim it as part of their cultural tradition.After all, he says, shisha lounges won’t disappear because the demand remains. They’ll simply keep adapting.Lteif believes it would be better for everyone if the practice was regulated, but legalized.”Let us practise our culture,” he pleaded.Ottawa Morning6:48Why underground shisha bars persist in Ottawa despite the smoking banCBC’s Rachelle Elsiufi brings us the story of shisha bar owners who operate in secret to practise their culture.

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