WESTLOCK — Town of Westlock councillors were passionate and defiant in their opposition to a bylaw that would require the town to remove the existing rainbow crosswalk between the town hall and the Westlock Legion.
At the Nov. 27 regular council meeting, the crosswalk and flagpole bylaw 2023-14 unanimously passed first reading before councillors shut it down, sharing their opinions and comments on the petition and proposed bylaw, which was perceived by councillors as a step backwards for the community.
Instead, they voted to allow residents to have their say on the bylaw and set a date for a municipal plebiscite on Feb. 22, 2024.
In a press release Monday night, the Town of Westlock said the “decision for a plebiscite follows the Oct. 30th verification of a petition submitted to the Town of Westlock, which calls for a bylaw that restricts the town to flying flags representative of only the municipal, provincial, or federal governments.” The same petition demands that crosswalks be painted only in a ‘traditional’ white-laddered pattern.
“This is the next step in the process that we are legislated to follow,” said acting mayor Murtaza Jamaly. “At this point, we feel like our community needs to weigh in on the crosswalk and flagpole bylaw at a plebiscite. On February 22, 2024, our community will need to make a hard choice. They will need to choose if removing our community’s rainbow crosswalk sends the right message about who we are.
“Removing this crosswalk would be a first in this province, and likely sends the message that we aren’t an inclusive community – something I know to be untrue.”
“We are following the legislation set out in the Municipal Government Act, holding the plebiscite within the required amount of time following the Nov. 27th meeting, while still allowing enough time for the town to coordinate the vote and advertise the details to the community,” said CAO Simone Wiley in the press release.
At Monday night’s meeting Jamaly joined other councillors in sharing passionate words and opinions about the bylaw and began the comments by listing a number of local businesses that support Pride and the LGBTQ2S+ community, as well as noted a long list of municipalities in Alberta who have embraced “the position of equity, diversity and inclusion and have chosen to paint a rainbow crosswalk to defend a group of individuals that for years have been the target of hate and discrimination.”
“The point that I’m trying to make here is that the choice to stand in opposition to kindness and inclusivity just isn’t accepted anywhere anymore,” said Jamaly, noting the matter has come before council twice this year. “And twice unanimously we rejected the premise that Westlock is a community that not everyone can feel safe in.”
In referencing the group of individuals who “used the system to ask our community to choose”, Jamaly said “to the dismay of our community and our youth, we will take the colours of the collective voice, colours that represent that all are loved and all are welcome and we will paint over them. That’s the only thing that changes — this bylaw works very specifically to target that action.”
Westlock councillors had much support Monday night as mayors and councillors from across the province joined them at the meeting both via Zoom and in person, including Alberta Municipalities board president and mayor of the City of Wetaskiwin, Tyler Gandam, among others.
Coun. Laura Morie said the bylaw was a waste of their energy and resources.
“On the surface, it would seem innocent, but it takes a lot of effort to be that disingenuous in my opinion … this is lipstick on bigotry,” she said.
Coun. Randy Wold born and raised in Westock shared how he grew up in a diverse neighbourhood.
“I do find it very disheartening to be part of this community to have a small number that want to bully their way through forcing a law that would step us back 100 years, I believe.”
Coun. Abby Keyes was very passionate in her response and at times appeared on the verge of tears.
“This petition is not solely about neutrality. It’s specifically targeting a minority group — the bylaw asks distinctly for the rainbow crosswalk to be removed. By enforcing this bylaw the Town of Westlock would have its hands tied in showcasing and supporting other groups in the future when flying white flags and crosswalks,” said Keyes.
She also noted that the town did not receive federal dollars for the rainbow crosswalk but did donate the space for a group of youths to use as a small token “to feel heard, seen and the very least tolerated.”
“I hope the people I serve in this community see what this is. We have to show tolerance — we have to show tolerance to a group of folks who need it now more than ever,” she added. “I still choose love, I choose tolerance and I hope the people that vote on this do the same.”
Coun. Curtis Snell finished up council comments on the bylaw and said after talking with residents, he believes “the majority of voters in the Town of Westlock will not be in favour of this bylaw.”
“One of the many tasks council has is to set direction for the town, to be an inclusive, accessible and loving community for all people from all walks of life and all over. This council has really strived to do that,” said Snell, noting it would be a step backwards if they approved the bylaw. He left councillors with one final thought.
“Would we be here discussing this bylaw tonight if we painted poppies on the crosswalk last June? I don’t know but I think not,” said Snell.
Westlock residents will go to the polls Feb. 22, 2024 to vote on the crosswalk and flagpole bylaw 2023-14. The Town of Westlock will provide additional information and details on the plebiscite as the date approaches.