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Spectrum of responses to rainbow referendum

A small town in Alberta has banned rainbows -- just in time for Pink Shirt Day on Feb. 28 -- but the symbol of inclusivity won’t be under prohibition in the Okanagan anytime soon.

Westlock has a population around 5,000 and is located nearly 100 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Voters were asked if they agree that the town’s flagpoles should only fly the Canadian, provincial and municipal flags; all crosswalks must be white striped pattern between two parallel white lines; and a rainbow crosswalk installed last May should be removed.

A slight majority of residents agreed -- the results were 663 YES to 639 NO -- a difference of 24 votes.

The referendum was held just a couple weeks after Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announced sweeping restrictions against access to medicines and surgeries for transgender minors.

Stephanie Bakker forced the referendum through a petition that collected signatures from at least 10% of the town’s population. A day after the vote, she issued a statement through the Facebook page Westlock Neutrality, saying kind and unkind words were thrown around by both sides.

“To our friends and family in the Pride community,” it reads, “… those who voted for the bylaw were not voting against YOU. You are loved. Those who voted for neutrality did so with a genuine desire to keep our community whole and inclusive.”

Last Friday night Bakker co-hosted a block party in Westlock called “I Don’t Agree with You, But I Love You.”

But Pride organizations are not as optimistic about the outcome of the referendum.

“It makes me really feel for youth and the message that it conveys that it’s not okay to be queer and visible. The impact this will have on mental health is very concerning,’ said Kelowna Pride advocate Wilbur Turner.

“I don’t foresee major cities doing something similar to Westlock in terms of rainbow crosswalks. Not saying it couldn’t happen, but I believe the majority of people are supportive.”

Turner pointed out how the City of Kelowna passed a bylaw that similarly prohibits the flying of non-government flags

“This didn’t arise from an issue over Pride flags, but was done to prevent an anti-abortion group from having their flag hoisted at city hall,” he said. “Prior to that, the Pride flag had been raised during Pride Week.”

He remembers there was “a fuss” in 2015 when Kelowna’s first rainbow crosswalk was put in, whereas little attention was paid last year when a second one was installed.

Heather Adamson, communications director with South Okanagan Similkameen PRIDE, said Westlock’s new rules are unnecessarily hurtful.

“Our emotional and physical safety as 2SLGBTQIA+ people is under attack by right wing ideologies that are increasing,” she said.

“We have been seeing a steady rise in hate towards our community over the last three to five years. It’s terrifying for us to see our human rights that previous generations fought so hard for be at risk of being erased.”

Another member of SOS PRIDE, Melisa Edgerly, was raised in a small Alberta city.

“I felt alone with no representation,” she said. “My high school experience was a nightmare. I was physically and verbally harassed. I never came out until after high school. I couldn’t be who I needed to be while in that community, I barely made it out alive.”

Edgerly remembers constantly thinking about suicide as a teen, and feels thankful there was one person who saw them for who they truly are.

“To see a community making it illegal for Pride to be shown is going to have drastic impacts on the quality of life for people and youth in the 2SLGBTQIA community. We stand with our 2LGBTQIA+ community that will not get to feel supported in Westlock. We see you and you deserve to be included, represented and respected.”

Last year in Penticton, a new rainbow crosswalk was installed on Power Street between Queen’s Park School and the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre. The design also includes a pair of eagle feathers. Penticton Indian Band elders participated in the official opening.

Within 24 hours, at least one driver demonstrated their disapproval by applying black skid marks across the design.

“Since the installation there have been many vile comments on social media that highlight the need to show support for all members of our community,” Penticton Deputy Mayor Helena Konanz and SD67 chair James Palanio said in a joint statement at the time.

“For the rainbow crosswalk to be a true symbol there needs to condemnation of bullying and intolerance. The installation of this symbol is not the end, it is the beginning.”

Vandalism continued until cameras were installed.

But despite a few haters, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to ban rainbows in Penticton or Summerland.

“I fully supported the Pride crosswalks and I’ve heard nothing that would make me reconsider,” Penticton Mayor Julius Bloomfield said, adding that he would vote against banning symbols of Pride if it ever came up.

“It’s certainly not on our agenda -- it’s never been mentioned, never been thought about, never been considered.”

In the realm of federal politics, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said last week that female sports, change rooms, and bathrooms should be exclusive to biological women.

Summerland Deputy Mayor Erin Trainer was a vocal supporter of rainbow crosswalks when two were installed in 2015.

“The District of Summerland recently repainted our two rainbow crosswalks and most of the feedback has been positive.”

So she very surprised and disappointed about the news in Westlock, but doesn’t expect Summerland to follow suit.

“The District has not received any complaints that have prompted concern or changes,” Trainer said.

Dan Walton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald