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Fate of Alberta town’s rainbow crosswalk on the line as residents vote in plebiscite

Residents of Westlock, Alta., are set to vote on a bylaw Thursday that, if passed, would restrict the town from displaying certain flags and crosswalks in an effort to keep public spaces politically neutral.

A plebiscite over a neutrality bylaw, spurred by a door-to-door petition signed by more than 700 residents, was announced in November. The bylaw would ban crosswalks and flags supporting “political, social, or religious movements or commercial entities,” if approved.

All crosswalks could only be painted in the standard white-striped pattern, and the town would be also limited to flying only municipal, provincial and federal flags on public property.

If the bylaw passes, a rainbow crosswalk painted last summer between town hall and the Royal Canadian Legion would be removed.

Results could be known as early as 10 p.m. Thursday.

Town staff received a petition on Sept. 15 from the Westlock Neutrality Team, led by Westlock resident Stephanie Bakker, asking council to make a bylaw “ensuring that crosswalks and flags on public property remain neutral.”

Bakker was one of several people who voiced opposition to the rainbow crosswalk at a council meeting last June — two weeks before it was painted.

Under Alberta’s Municipal Government Act, petitions must be signed by at least 10 per cent of an area’s population to go before council. With Westlock’s official population count of 4,921, Bakker needed at least 492 people to sign. She received about 700 signatures.

After collecting the required number of signatures, Westlock town staff had 45 days to verify the petition and draft a bylaw. Under the act, council is required to pass first reading within 30 days. Councillors could then choose to pass second and third readings, or call a plebiscite. 

A woman with brown skin takes a picture of herself. She has brown hair and wears a grey sweater.
Stephanie Bakker, a Westlock resident who authored a petition calling for a neutrality bylaw, said neutrality within government is important for everyone to “get along.” (Submitted by Stephanie Bakker)

Bakker said in an interview last week that council has chosen sides on what she’s calling a “contentious issue.” She said council members, including Mayor Jon Kramer, have been encouraging residents to vote against the bylaw through videos and mail flyers.

“That’s not really something you want to see from your elected representatives,” she said.

“Everything they’re doing is legal; I just really doubt if it’s ethical.”

Bakker said people are feeling weary ahead of Thursday’s vote. Residents “just want to get along,” she said, but feel as if the mayor and council are trying to push people to vote in their favour.

“They are saying that they’re doing it out of compassion and caring and wanting to make the town inclusive, but … people are feeling a bit bullied,” she said.

One of the residents supporting Bakker is Benita Pedersen. She said elected representatives should serve people in a fair and impartial manner — something she believes has not happened.

“We’re having a vote on neutrality and the irony is this council can’t even be neutral,” Pedersen told CBC News last week.

A woman with long curly hair sits in front of a white background during a video interview.
Benita Pedersen, a Westlock resident who helped collect signatures on the petition calling for a neutrality bylaw, said one particular group or community shouldn’t be elevated above others. (Aaron Sousa/CBC)

Pedersen said residents who support the bylaw feel frustrated because they don’t have a councillor giving them a voice. 

She also said groups or communities shouldn’t be elevated above others. She has since written to the province asking for an investigation into council’s actions.

“It shouldn’t have to come to this,” Pedersen said. “Council should be listening to and respecting and — to an extent — validating the voice of the people.”

Westlock councillors voted unanimously last May to paint the town’s first rainbow crosswalk between town hall and the local legion as a way to promote inclusion. 

It came after the Thunder Alliance, a group supporting 2SLGBTQ+ students at R.F. Staples Secondary School, proposed the project. The crosswalk was painted June 27.

LISTEN | Westlock residents will go to the polls over neutrality: 

Edmonton AM6:20Westlock residents will go to the polls over a proposed neutrality bylaw

Westlock made history last summer, painting its first rainbow crosswalk.But a proposed bylaw could spell the end of it. For more on the story, we’re joined in studio by Edmonton AM’s Aaron Sousa. He’s been looking into this for us.

Kramer, the mayor, said council has been in full support of the crosswalk, riding on a campaign that calls on residents to vote no and “stand for inclusion.”

He said the campaign is being funded by private donations through a GoFundMe page.

“When diversity makes a home in your community, we believe there’s both an incredible opportunity and also a responsibility to respond proactively in an inclusive way,” Kramer said in an interview last week.

“We’ve made it clear to the students in our Thunder Alliance GSA that they’re an integral part of the community and we’ve got their backs.”

Kramer said council has used the plebiscite as an opportunity to educate residents on inclusivity. 

WATCH | Pride in small towns: 

Alberta towns face anti-LGBTQ backlash during Pride Month

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As more communities embrace initiatives to mark Pride month, councillors and LGBTQ support groups are troubled by signs of a growing backlash. The Alberta RCMP says reports of hate incidents are on the rise this June compared to last year. Ariel Fournier shows us how small communities in Alberta are facing the challenge.

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