Alberta town’s residents vote in favour of bylaw that will see Pride crosswalk be removed

Click to play video: 'Westlock residents votes in favour of controversial bylaw'
Westlock residents votes in favour of controversial bylaw
WATCH: After a very tight vote, a town north of Edmonton has opted in favour of a bylaw that bans Pride flags and rainbow crosswalks on municipal property. Jasmine King has more from Westlock, where a plebiscite in favour of the town flying only government flags and painting crosswalks in a white striped pattern passed Thursday night by just 24 votes – Feb 23, 2024

Residents of Westlock, Alta., have voted in favour of prohibiting non-governmental flags from being flown on municipal flagpoles and the painting of town crosswalks in any other way than a traditional white-striped pattern.

The result of the plebiscite, which by law was automatically triggered by a petition brought forward to council in October 2023, means that the town’s Pride crosswalk will need to be removed.

The vote on Thursday was a close one, with 663 people voting in favour of the changes and 639 people voting against them, according to unofficial results posted by the town on Thursday night.

In a news release, Mayor Jon Kramer noted that town council did not support the bylaw because it “went against our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.”

“This plebiscite is binding, and as such, the bylaw does restrict how we are able to show this commitment,” he said “However, we will continue to find ways to embrace those in our community who need a helping hand, including marginalized groups.

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“Equity is the reason we require wheelchair accessible parking; it is why we are developing an accessible playground; and yes, it is the reason we show support to marginalized groups like our local 2SLGBTQ+ community.

“That won’t stop, it will just take on a different form. We know the Town of Westlock is a welcoming community and that will not change.”

Click to play video: 'Westlock bans Pride flags, rainbow crosswalks after tight vote'
Westlock bans Pride flags, rainbow crosswalks after tight vote

After the unofficial results of the vote were announced, some high-profile LGBTQ2 advocates in Alberta took to social media to respond.

“To Westlock’s 2SLGBTQ+ community: I’m so sorry. You may feel alone, but know that so many of us stand with you,” NDP MLA Janis Irwin posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “The fight for a safe, inclusive Alberta continues. We can’t back down. We won’t.

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“And please folks, don’t paint all Westlock residents with the same brush. Being there for the crosswalk painting last year was one of the most incredible events I’ve been to as an MLA. So many people were organizing and pushing back against this bylaw. Sending them so much love.”

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Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University, also posted about the news on X.

“Smells like discrimination. Looks like discrimination. It is discrimination,” he tweeted. “I’d expect a court challenge on the way.

“You can’t single out the 2SLGBTQ+ community and call it neutrality. That’s a violation of human rights.”

The petition for the bylaw came to town council five months after a Pride crosswalk was painted in the town. The crosswalk was painted on June 27.

Stephanie Bakker helped organize the petition. In November she said the initiative was aimed at keeping town council “neutral” after plans were made to paint a crosswalk in Pride colours.

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.

“We were grateful,” she said on Friday when asked what her reaction to the vote was. “We had no idea which way the vote would go.

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“I think the best way to make an inclusive community is for public spaces to be just a neutral black canvas. And the government should not be arbitrating one ideology or another.”

Bakker said upon learning months ago that the town had plans for a Pride crosswalk, she voiced her concerns to town council but found the reaction to be “dismissive.”

“I just really feel things like this segregate our community more, especially if it’s the government stepping in and doing it,” she said. “I have no problem whatsoever with private citizens trying to create better relationships with the Pride community or any minority community at all — that’s fine. That’s a beautiful thing.

“And our town — surprisingly for a little hick farming town — it’s very diverse. There’s a lot of different people in this community. I just decided to make my case for neutrality.”

Bakker indicated she would have raised the same concerns if the plans were for “a Buddhist crosswalk or a Black Lives Matter crosswalk.”

She said she has planned a community get-together with the hope of uniting the town regardless of how different people feel about the plebiscite and the results.

Under the Municipal Government Act, a petition for a new bylaw that has 10 per cent or more of the municipality’s residents’ names on it requires the municipal government to verify the petition and pass a first of three readings of the bylaw.

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Westlock has a population of 4,802.

After giving the bylaw first reading, council was required either to proceed with the second and third readings of the bylaw or to take the decision to residents to vote on.

Now that the town’s residents have voted in favour of the bylaw, the town is required to implement it.

Westlock is located about 90 kilometres north of downtown Edmonton.

At an unrelated news conference in Edmonton on Friday, Randy Boissonnault, the federal employment, workforce development and official languages minister, was asked for his reaction to the vote.

Boissonnault grew up in the town of Morinville, which is also north of Edmonton, and spoke about how such a vote could put the province in a negative light before talking about how the results made him feel personally.

“I have friends and family in and around Westlock. And I’m not going to hide it — I think it’s a step backward,” he told reporters.

“We’ve got great investments coming to our province. And if you’re sitting in Toronto or you’re sitting in Berlin or you’re sitting in the United States and you’re trying to figure out: are you going to pour hundreds of thousands or millions or billions of dollars into a province that is sending signals that not everybody is welcome, I think that’s a problem.”

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In offering his own personal reaction to the vote, Boissonnault reflected on his youth and deciding to attend university in Edmonton.

“I left Morinville as a queer kid because I knew I’d never be able to be myself,” he recalled. “And when I came to the University of Alberta … there were days at the University of Alberta where it was ‘No Jeans Day.’ And you know what ‘No Jeans Day’ meant? If you put on jeans it meant you supported the LGBT community. It meant you were queer. So there were entire days where entire faculties wouldn’t wear jeans.

“That was the Ralph Klein (former premier) Alberta. We are not going back there. And so this cannot continue. It is beyond disappointing. It is a step backward. And it is a very narrow vote.”

–with files from Caley Gibson, Global News


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