Renfrew council votes for a rainbow crosswalk following an intense, but respectful debate

Renfrew -- It was near standing room capacity last week inside Renfrew council chambers as two contentious issues dealing with the issue of diversity and inclusion of some marginalized groups in society were hotly debated.

By the end of last Tuesday’s meeting and after two recorded votes, council voted in favour of painting a rainbow crosswalk along Railway Avenue and the creation of a multicultural art display featuring panels containing information on various groups at the Visitors Information Centre located at Howard Haramis Park.

Prior to any vote being taken, Kelly Thompson, Renfrew Public Library CEO and lead staff member for the town’s Community Support, Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Initiatives (CSMARI) Project grant, provided an overview of the history and purpose of the grant.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is used to describe policies and programs that promote representation and participation of different groups of individuals,” she said. “It encompasses people of different ages, races, ethnicities, cultures and sexual orientations. In December 2020, council presented a report on diversity in the Town of Renfrew and spoke in support of a progressive action plan.”

She explained the council of the day voted in favour of moving forward and a grant proposal was later submitted to the federal government which included training for staff on diversity issues. The $55,591 grant has an end-date of March 31, 2024, and a consultant was commissioned by the town to administer the scope of the project.

One aspect of the project included a set of artistic panels/murals on the second-floor exterior wall of town hall facing Railway Avenue. Also included in the overall project was a commitment from the previous council to install a rainbow sidewalk on Railway Avenue and a set of Pride Rainbow flags alongside.

The tone was set early in the meeting when Mayor Tom Sidney read aloud a motion brought forward from the town’s Community Services and Economic Development Committee (CSED) that council take no further action regarding a crosswalk, sidewalk or art project supporting community support, multiculturalism and anti-racism.

When he called for a mover and seconder to bring the motion to the floor, he was met with silence. At that point he asked if any councillor had a motion they wished to be brought forward and discussed.

Councillor Andrew Dick, who chairs the (CSED) committee that recommended no action be taken on the artistic component, introduced a motion calling for the consultants hired by the town to include a new artistic display to be created at the town-owned Visitor Information Centre.

His motion also recommended a trained youth councillor be on site at the Mateway complex for young people requesting help in the areas outlined within the areas of the project.

Councillor Clint McWhirter was in favour of the motion.

“I feel that providing counselling for people in this situation and support is long overdue and I’ve talked to a lot of people in the community and they are very much on board and agree that support is needed,” he said. “We are going to have a youth centre at the expanded centre and it goes hand-in-hand with that.”

Mayor Sidney recognized the importance of moving forward on the ideals of the project.

“I think it’s great we are heading in this direction…and we are starting to recognize that Renfrew is moving forward and Renfrew is trying to make people feel welcome and safe by highlighting the wonderful things that multiculturalism does and brings to our community.”

Councillor John McDonald requested a recorded vote and the motion passed with all seven members voting in favour of the Coun. Dick’s motion.

Rainbow Crosswalk Divides Council

However, the spirit of unanimity did not last long after Reeve Peter Emon introduced a motion to renew the previous commitment to paint a rainbow crosswalk on Railway Avenue and the cost to install the crosswalk and any ongoing maintenance be covered by groups involved with the LBGTQ community. His motion rescinded the placement of PRIDE flags along Railway Avenue, but also requested the installation of surveillance cameras to monitor the area due to recent events.

In the last few months, the area for the proposed crosswalk has been the target of vandals who covered the area in spray paint and a second incident included the direct targeting of the town’s PRIDE rainbow bench with homophobic remarks.

Coun. McDonald, who voted against the art and crosswalk projects as a member of the EDCS committee one week earlier, read from a prepared statement explaining why he originally voted against the art project and why he intended to vote against Reeve Emon’s motion.

“I didn’t agree with painting the side of our town hall for the following reasons,” he began. “We just spent over $1 million to modernize our town hall and to have a professional look. We went with a professional look because it is the identity we want to project. This money wasn’t spent to create a canvass for any group, cause or belief system no matter how deserving they may be.”

He continued stating his opposition included any promotion or identities and causes such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, the Ukrainian War, religious groups whether they be Christian, Jewish or Muslim, and the PRIDE group issue would fall under this umbrella of causes.

He argued council was not given a mandate to permanently change the look of the downtown core with permanent roadway paintings or murals, but they need to maintain a neutrality at the town hall.

“We need to remain neutral regarding these types of permanent changes. If we open the door to one group then we open the door to other groups who have the same freedom to come forward and make requests,” he continued. “I celebrate freedom and inclusion for everyone. I support our Canadian flag but would not support the painting of our Canadian flag as a sidewalk … in the same vein, I support diversity, equity and inclusion but I don’t support a PRIDE flag being permanently painted as a crosswalk.”

Councillor Jason Legris, also a member of the EDCS committee who voted against murals on the building or a PRIDE crosswalk or flags on Railway Avenue, said he was against the motion for personal reasons.

“I am opposed to walking on flags, even if they are painted on,” he said. “I understand they are symbolic, but I find it personally inappropriate. Regarding the sidewalk, I have yet to encounter one that has maintained its original look. Although I do not agree with the motion today, I will continue to work with DEI groups to create something inclusive at the Visitor Centre.”

He concluded by stressing his disappointment with the number of offensive emails and phone calls he received following his vote against moving ahead with the original project when it came before the EDCS committee one week earlier. He said if those individuals had taken the time to contact him, he would have been more than willing to update them on his pro-active involvement with various DEI groups.

Coun. McWhirter said he voted in favour of the previous motion because the information centre has the room for creative displays and it is a popular place for tourists and residents and he stressed his support for youth counselling.

“For the crosswalk, if there was no other avenue to do something for that one particular group, I would say ‘yes’,” he said. “I think the money would be better spent on counselling for people who are going through this. I have family and friends who are in this group and every one of them has told me the money would be better spent in counselling and support.”

Reeve Emon spoke of the changing nature of society and a council’s role in that evolutionary process. He also spoke of his sudden reality of physical challenges since a recent illness has him using a walker to assist in his mobility.

“As leaders in the community, one of the responsibilities is to bring forward ideas that sometimes push the community in directions and heights it hasn’t been to before,” he said. “I think of recent history and now my use of a walker and I am not sure that if municipal governments had not pushed accessibility over the years, there wouldn’t be as good accessibility as we have in the communities. It is because municipalities listened to people having struggles with mobility and that has now spread to 2025 when commercial and public establishments have to have accessible entrance ways.

“It is because municipalities lead in public policy and we have a segment of our community that they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel welcome and they don’t feel like they don’t have a home here.”

He said as a member of the previous council, he was in favour of installing a PRIDE crosswalk and flags on Railway Avenue after meeting with members of disenfranchised communities and the site was chosen both for its high visibility and the fact town staff could maintain it.

Coun. Dick responded to Coun. Legris’ concern of disrespecting the PRIDE flag by walking on a painted crosswalk and Coun. McWhirter’s concern of tax dollars being used on the crosswalk.

“Part of council is we debate and we talk and hopefully I can change some of your minds,” he said. “Coun. McWhirter, PRIDE is paying for the crosswalk and not the taxpayers, so I just wanted you to know that as you make your decision. As for walking on the flag, I would never walk on my flag either. But someone said to me you are not walking on the flag but we are walking together as a community and I think that is very neat.”

He concluded by reminding his fellow councillors of the need for society and council to evolve into a more inclusive society that is free of hatred and discrimination. He reminded them their actions are on full display and their children are able to watch the evening’s proceedings on YouTube to see how they meet that challenge.

Mayor Sidney had the last word before the recorded vote and his message was simple. He referenced Coun. Legris’ frustration with the barrage of negative messages and other councillors who may have received negative and hateful messages over just one issue.

“I couldn’t even imagine if that was my life…I couldn’t imagine if I made a decision here tonight and because of that decision I leave here and I got beat up…or got killed,” he said. “Having a crosswalk is not just about a crosswalk. It is a symbol that the town of Renfrew sees you. We hear you. We support you and you are safe here.”

When the vote was called, Councillors McDonald, Legris and Cybulski voted against and Councillors Dick and McWhirter along with Reeve Emon and Mayor Sidney voted in favour resulting in the motion being passed by a 4-3 count.

Reflections from Council

Following the meeting, the Leader extended an opportunity for all of council to take 24 hours to reflect on the most contentious issue they have debated, an issue that has garnered both strong support and negative opposition in the community. They were asked to provide a written statement pertaining to the outcome of the vote.

Councillor McDonald stated, “I’m very pleased we had the ability to fully discuss this motion. This is a demonstration of our democracy in action. I believe people generally support the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion. The issue was a permanent pride sidewalk. The decision has been made and we now move forward.”

Councillor Kyle Cybulski, who was on a video link due to an out-of-town commitment said, “my only opinion is this full situation is a lose-lose situation for the town and that is very unfortunate for the town as a whole.”

Reeve Peter Emon stated, “when people see and use the crosswalk, I trust and hope it reminds them we are a safe community where people can be themselves without fear of judgment, threat or persecution. No community is perfect, but we will continue to take small steps forward and I believe the successful votes on the two motions were the steps forward our community expects from council.”

Mayor Sidney said the debate at council was sincere and respectful and now it is time council, town staff and the community to take the next steps towards making Renfrew a more inclusive and welcoming community for all.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader