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'We're not wavering in our commitment to inclusion,' says Alta. mayor after passing of bylaw banning Pride crosswalks, flags

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Westlock, a town of about 5,000 people north of Edmonton, voted Thursday to implement a bylaw that prohibits rainbow crosswalks and restricts the town to flying only government flags. 

Between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, 1,306 Westlock residents – or 33.5 per cent of eligible voters – reported to a community hall to vote either yes or no to the following question: 

"Do you agree that: only federal, provincial and municipal flags may be flown on flagpoles on Town of Westlock municipal property; all crosswalks in the Town of Westlock must be the standard white striped pattern between two parallel white lines; and the existing rainbow coloured crosswalk in the Town of Westlock be removed." 

The yes contingent won by 24 votes: 663 in favour to 639 opposed. Four ballots were rejected during counting, the town said.

"As a council, I'd say we're disappointed by the results in this, but we're not discouraged. We know that the future is inclusive, we know that the goal of municipal government – as well as making sure your toilets flush and the water flows – is that everybody has a sense of belonging in your community," Mayor Jon Kramer told CTV News Edmonton on Friday. 

"So at the end of the day, we've lost crosswalks, we've lost flagpoles, but we're not wavering in our commitment to inclusion." 

He added: "Inclusion is a creative enterprise. So if you're out of ideas when crosswalks and flagpoles are off the table, you're not trying hard enough."

Voter turnout on Thursday was higher than both the January byelection (1,271) and the 2021 municipal general election (1,221) when Westlock had 370 more eligible voters. 

In a statement, Nicky Vranas, the teacher who leads the Thunder Alliance gay-straight alliance, which painted the crosswalk, told CTV News Edmonton, "We feel the eyes of not just Alberta, but all of Canada on our small town."

Vranas supported the no side.

"It was not the outcome that Westlock needed and we will soon see the consequences," Vranas continued. 

"We are still only part way across the bridge of inclusivity, and this bylaw seeks to cut the ropes," the statement continued. "But this is not the end. The Thunder Alliance has always focused on creating safe and caring spaces for everyone. So first, we will grieve because though we know this is not the end, it could have been. Then, we will continue this work with the help of our allies in this community and outside of it."

Community reacts 

The bylaw was proposed in a 2023 petition by a group that demanded "neutrality" in public spaces, three months after the town's first Pride crosswalk was painted by a local gay-straight alliance. 

In a statement on Westlock Neutrality's website, lead organizer Stephanie Bakker thanked supporters and invited queer community members to a block party celebrating the group's win. The party at Capri Mall was named the "I Don’t Agree with You But I Love You Block Party." 

"To our friends and family in the Pride community… despite what the Mayor and Council have been trying so hard to convince you of, 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," Bakker wrote. 

She did not respond to CTV News Edmonton's request for comment. 

On Friday, the crosswalk in front of Westlock Town Office was faded from the elements and road use. Kramer said it would likely be re-painted black and white in June, when the paint on all crosswalks is typically refreshed. 

One resident, John Fradette, told CTV News Edmonton he voted yes because "it's about more than" just a crosswalk. 

"I don't have any issue with having a (crosswalk) or whatever, but when it comes to some of the other things, like, how many flags would we fly, how many – it just would never end, I think. That's just my personal opinion. 

"I think we would never be able to satisfy everybody… So this, to me, satisfies everyone."

But three others who voted against the bylaw argued rainbow crosswalks are harmless and help give visibility to important issues. 

"How is this hurting anybody, to have a welcoming thing for people who are of the LGBTQ (community)?" asked Ellen Opp, who travels to Westlock from the Athabasca area about once a week. 

"It's just not fair or kind, and I think we should be kind." 

Advice: 'Continue the conversation'

Because the petition proposing the bylaw had signatures from 10 per cent of residents, Westlock's council was obligated to give it a first reading under theMunicipal Government Act. Council members opposed, however, giving the bylaw a second and third reading, resulting in the matter becoming a plebiscite, or direct community vote, according to the provincial legislation.

Because the bylaw originated from a community-led petition, it can only be undone by a second petition seeking to rescind after a one-year cooling-off period, Kramer said.

Leading up to the plebiscite, he and his fellow council members campaigned against the bylaw on the points of economic impact and the goodness of equity. 

"The way I've explained it to our business community is whenever they go to hire somebody, the first thing they do is Google them. And that tells you 90 per cent of what they want to know. And so we know this is a bit of our identity for the next while until we keep moving the needle in the right direction as far as inclusion goes," he said. 

"That's why it's disappointing this seems like a step back, but in the grander scheme of things, our community is headed in the right direction." 

A similar sentiment was echoed by an 18-year-old resident who wasn't able to vote but who wished the bylaw didn't pass. 

"I don't want people to think we're closed off and close minded and I want people to feel safe because there's a lot of kids here that are in that community and they probably feel safe, or they feel unwelcome," Mackenzie Pollard said. 

A board member at PFLAG Canada, a non-profit resource and advocacy centre for 2SLGBTQ+ people, said the bylaw demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance of the Pride flag and other symbols. 

"If you're on the no side of the vote today and very disappointed in your neighbours in Westlock, my words of encouragement would be to continue the conversation," Tristan Coolman said. "Unfortunately, when you're in these moments in queer history, we're not always going to win all the time and the most important thing to try to do is try to build your army of allies around you and your army of lovers and hopefully that is what permeates and what really gets the conversation to another level."

In January, an Ontario town effectively overturned a bylaw that banned Pride flags

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Amanda Anderson 

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