A legal battle over the civil rights of a pair of puppets—and their handler—will play out in a Halifax courtroom next month. At issue: Does the Waterfront Development Corporation, a publicly owned corporation, have the authority to ban people from the harbourside boardwalk?
Puppeteer T.H. Hatte performs in schools and at festivals. His brochure lists four puppet shows geared towards elementary school children, including lessons about bullying and the Tibetan Peace Mandala. A dozen other shows are aimed at older children. He supplements that income through busking on the boardwalk.
“School’s out, it’s a slow time, but the cruise ships are great,” he explains.
Hatte’s boardwalk show is “Puppet Idol,” a spoof on the American Idol TV show. He carries two puppets in a suitcase, which becomes the base of a stage formed with a four-foot ironing board.
“Americans love it.,” he says. “America is a country of audience members. They love buskers. They come, they say, ‘American Idol!’ and throw a dollar in the hat. Canadians don’t get it. They only go see buskers when there’s a pre-approved time for it, like the Buskers Festival: ‘OK, this is the time to watch buskers.’ And then they think the government pays for it somehow.”
But beginning last year, Hatte has had a series of bad encounters with a Waterfront Development-hired security guard and Halifax police.
“It was last summer, around the time of the Jazz Festival, just before the Buskers Festival,” says Hatte.
He had set up his stage and was performing before some tourists, only to be approached by a security guard and told to leave the waterfront. He says the security guard told him to “go back to the reserve.” Hatte says he is Metis—his grandmother was native—but he doesn’t self-identify as native or Metis.
“I don’t know where that came from. Maybe I reminded her of someone she knows,” he says.
Unsettled, Hatte incorporated the guard into his show. “My puppets did make fun of her,” he says. “Can’t you find some real crime?” said one.
“I lampooned her. I feel bad. Afterwards, I thought I should apologize. You know, I teach kids at school to be peaceful, and I do the Peace Mandala. But my ego gets large...It’s against my principles.”
But at the time, the guard called the police, and two officers arrived. They told him to take off his mask. “It’s against the Terrorist Act,” said one of the cops.
Hatte had heard that claim before, when a cop had moved him along from in front of Pete’s Frootique on Dresden Row. “Terrorist Act? What are you talking about?”
The mask is standard equipment for puppeteers, he explains. “It’s black, and covers my face, like what a fencer might wear. You’re supposed to look at the puppets, not me. I’m not a ventriloquist. I didn’t invent this. It’s a psychological trick to get you to pay attention to the action. Hand-and-rod puppeteers use it all the time.”
Still, Hatte packed up his equipment and left. But, annoyed by the “Terrorist Act” claim, he says he subsequently called Legal Aid, which laughed at the notion. There are new provisions in law against wearing masks at protests, but that has nothing to do with a lone busker using a mask as part of a performance.
Fast forward to this year, also during the Jazz Festival. Hatte set up near the Maritime Museum and started performing for tourists. “I looked up, and there she was—the very same security guard,” accompanied by a cop, he says. “I said, let me guess, the Terrorist Act?”
“No, this time I’m screaming and insulting the tourists,” he says. “Now why would I shout and scream at the people I want to put money in my hat? I was mad and insulted that they’d say I would yell at the tourists.Totally flummoxed.”
Again, Hatte incorporated the cop into his show, which irritated the officer.
“Stop talking to me with puppets,” he said.
“I’ve learned, never insult a policeman’s intelligence,” says Hatte.
The cop told Hatte he was “banned from the waterfront,” but Hatte brushed aside the remark. “How can you ban someone from the waterfront? It’s the boardwalk. Public. There are tourists everywhere. You can’t just ban people.”
Again, Hatte packed up his gear and left.
Another week went by, and Hatte thought he’d try his luck again. “I figure I’ll go down on Sunday, when the security officer isn’t working, make 40 bucks in about two-and-a-half hours.”
But this time four police officers arrived.
‘I’ve got two puppets, you’re four cops,” says Hatte. “That’s two cops per puppet.”
Hatte, however, had resolved “to stay calm, zen-like. i didn’t make fun of them with the puppets. It was a much better experience.”
As Hatte explains it, he was told that he was in violation of the ban from the waterfront. “‘What are you talking about?’ I said, and she said, ‘Oh, he didn’t give you the paper?’ and she reaches into her pocket and pulls out this sheet of paper that bans me from the waterfront. If she had it on her, why’d she have to ask if I had it yet?”
Hatte says only then did he realize that the “ban from the waterfront” was an actual legal ban. Still, the police officer proceeded to write his a ticket for trespassing. The fine is $265.
“That’s two months of busking,” he says.
Hatte raises concerns about a public agency banning people from public property, without a court judgment. “A security guard can get me banned,” he says. “Maybe they’ve got something against me, think I’m not good looking enough. They don’t like the cut of my jib, and bam, I’m banned.”
Waterfront Development has not returned a call for comment.
Hatte intends to fight the $265 ticket in court. “Maybe I’ll get a sympathetic judge,” he says. In the meanwhile, he is avoiding the waterfront. “I don’t intend to go to jail for my puppet rights.”