Five months after a Pride crosswalk was painted in Westlock, Alta., the town council started the legislative journey on a bylaw that would have to remove the coloured paint. Citizens will go to the polls next year to vote on a bylaw that would restrict how crosswalks in the town could be painted and what flags could be flown on town property.
The proposed bylaw would only allow town crosswalks to be painted with a “standard white stripe pattern.” Only flags from the town, the province or Canada’s national flag would be allowed to fly on flagpoles on public property or facilities. And in both spaces, no decorations or flags “supporting political, social, or religious movements or commercial entities” would be allowed. The bylaw also would prevent the grandfathering of existing crosswalks or flags.
Stephanie Bakker, a petition organizer, said the effort was to keep town council “neutral” after plans were made to paint one of the crosswalks in Pride colours.
“I believe it’s very important for government to remain neutral, not to promote any one ideology or cause or anything above another,” Bakker told Global News. “Where they play favourites, they can also later discriminate against. They shouldn’t have the power to either play favourites or discriminate.”
Deputy and acting mayor Murtaza Jamaly said the crosswalk was proposed by the Thunder Alliance, a local secondary school gay-straight alliance (GSA), in May with community support: the local Family and Community Support Services youth coordinator endorsed the idea, local businesses donated funds for the paint, and the only requirement from the town was permission to paint the crosswalk.
“It’s actually something that our council has been talking about doing for a number of years, and we always felt like it would come better if it came from the community and this was that golden opportunity,” Jamaly said.
“We felt that this was a symbol of what our community represents and it supported a group that had long been discriminated (against), and we felt the need to prop up that group.”
Jamaly said council has been talking about a Pride crosswalk for years, but they wanted to wait for a strong signal of community support.
“This was that golden opportunity.”
That decision to donate town property was seen as not following a “duty of state neutrality” by Bakker and her colleagues. They pointed to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2015 decision in which the City of Saguenay, Que., was found to have run counter to their duty of religious neutrality as a government body after opening council meetings with prayer.
“A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgement on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society,” the decision reads.
No other flags
If the bylaw is passed, in addition to having to remove the Pride sidewalk, the town would not be able to fly any flags other than those of Canada, Alberta or Westlock.
That means a Pride flag would be prohibited during Pride month, flying flags to recognize foreign dignitaries would be verboten, and the town would not be able to raise treaty or Metis flags as a sign of reconciliation.
Jamaly said town council had considered raising a Treaty Six or Metis flag, like how the nearby village of Clyde, Alta., raised a flag honouring the Metis people.
The Alexander First Nation is nearly 40 kilometres directly south of Westlock, and the deputy mayor said the town has deliberately worked on its relationship with the First Nation, including hosting two events focused on truth and reconciliation.
“Raising a Treaty Six flag, raising a Metis flag is a small symbol to those individuals that don’t necessarily recognize with those groups of people. But it is a huge symbol to those individuals that have suffered from persecution or survivors from residential schools, that we are their allies in supporting Indigenous relationships,” he said.
“This bylaw prevents us from doing that.”
10 per cent threshold
Over the summer, Bakker and the “Westlock Neutrality Team” gathered signatures from more than 700 residents, forcing town council to begin the process of adopting the proposed bylaw. Bakker said some people they met were afraid to sign the petition for fear of repercussions at work or in the community.
Under the Municipal Government Act, a petition for a new bylaw that has 10 per cent or more of the municipality’s population on it requires the municipal government to verify the petition and must pass a first of three readings of the bylaw.
Westlock, a town about an hour’s drive north of Edmonton, has a population of 4,802.
On the same day the town announced the petition had been verified, Benita Pedersen, coordinator of 1MillionMarch4Children and organizer of protests against SOGI curriculum (which is not a part of Alberta’s education curriculum), congratulated the “Neutrality Team” and Robin Brett on Facebook for collecting the signatures.
After receiving the verified petition, town council was faced with three choices: to pass the remaining readings of the bylaw and enact it immediately, set a date for a plebiscite within 90 days of that council meeting, or delay the decision to set the plebiscite date to the next council meeting.
At a meeting on Monday, town council voted to put the adoption of the bylaw to a plebiscite on Feb. 22, 2024, after passing the first reading.
Going to a vote
“We really have no choice in the matter. We’re compelled to pass first reading,” Jamaly said. “At that point, we decided that council didn’t support the proposed bylaw and our only option thereafter is to push this forward to a community vote at a plebiscite.”
In a statement, Thunder Alliance said they were “filled with gratitude and hope” after the town council decided against putting the bylaw immediately into law.
“The proposed bylaw may seem simple and innocent, but we see it for what it is,” the GSA said.
They also said the plebiscite introduces an element of fear.
“Fear that the positive changes and the safety that we as a community have created will be erased. That being said, we are grateful for a town that embraces diversity and fights for equity and justice for all,” Thunder Alliance said.
“We can remain hopeful because this town and its people have already shown us that they are people with integrity who want to be part of a positive, inclusive community, not part of a divided one.”
The deputy mayor said the petition represents concerns from a “very small group of individuals.”
Jamaly was also concerned that the vote and the entire petition process has already harmed the town’s reputation.
“Just in the fact that this has come to council, it sends a message about our community that I think is just so grossly untrue,” he said. “This kind of paints us to saying that we’re not a community that supports everyone. And that simply isn’t true.
“We are a very welcoming and inclusive community, and individuals that are thinking about investment or setting up their businesses here… this is something that’s really important to stakeholders, to external businesses, to an investment today.
“As somebody who’s grown up in this community, my family emigrated from East Africa to Westlock and I’ve always been treated with respect, and never felt like this was a community that I couldn’t raise my own family in.”
Bakker, also born & raised in Westlock, said the petition results give the people a chance to vote on the matter. She also said she was divorced from the outcome.
“That’s democracy,” she said. “That’s all we’re asking for is just to have it done democratically and not to have our town council giving morality lectures at us.
“If I could, I’d love to have a petition asking the government to just remain neutral in general, but that we didn’t really see a good way to do that. So for now, we just did crosswalks and flagpoles, as there are some other towns in Canada that we were looking at that had some similar bylaws, whether just crosswalks, just flagpoles or both.”
The town must now prepare a vote on the matter, complete with advertising and logistics like ballots, staffing and venues.
It’ll be the second vote in as many months facing Westlockians, as Jan. 10, 2024, will see a byelection to fill two seats previously resigned by the former mayor and a councillor.