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LGBTQ students look ahead after Alberta town bans Pride flags, rainbow crosswalks

A crosswalk in Westlock, Alta., that was painted in Pride colours in June 2023 in an event attended by hundreds of people. (Credit: George Blais/Westlock Town and Country Today) A crosswalk in Westlock, Alta., that was painted in Pride colours in June 2023 in an event attended by hundreds of people. (Credit: George Blais/Westlock Town and Country Today)
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Haylin Lussier went home and screamed after the student's town voted for a bylaw banning Pride flags and rainbow crosswalks from municipal property. 

Lussier, a member of the gay-straight alliance in Westlock, Alta., had spearheaded efforts to get a Pride crosswalk painted last year for the first time in the town of 4,800 north of Edmonton.

It's now set to be removed.

"It was rough," Lussier, 18, said this week in a phone interview.

Jess Lucas, 15, also a member of the gay-straight alliance who helped get the crosswalk painted, said they were heartbroken.

"It doesn't just affect our group. It also affects different flags, like the Métis and Inuit flag for truth and reconciliation, and the Ukrainian flag for the war that is happening."

In February, a slim majority of the town voted to fly only government flags and paint crosswalks in a white striped pattern.

There were 1,302 votes cast in the plebiscite, with 663 people in favour and 639 opposed.

The town's mayor and council had been opposed to the move, saying it would send a negative message for inclusivity and would harm investment. 

The Westlock Neutrality Team, a group that spearheaded a petition for the change, says on its website governments should not promote minority groups. 

"Those who voted for neutrality did so with a genuine desire to keep our community whole and inclusive," says a website post from the group.

The students said they felt so much joy when they painted the crosswalk last year. It included black and white lines to represent allies who don't identify as being part of the LGBTQ community, Lussier added.

"I've received texts from grown people within our community trying to gloat that we've lost the crosswalk. I'm older now, so I can handle it, but I feel horrible for the younger kids."

Even though those who painted the crosswalk are upset, the slim win shows there's more support for the LGBTQ community than previously thought, said 18-year-old student Cynthia Rondeau.

"Years ago, the vote wouldn't have been this close. The vote would have won out by a landslide," said Rondeau.

"It's really nice and it's kind of hopeful that the town has an opportunity to grow. There are more people, even if they don't agree, they still show their appreciation and they are still allied with us."

FEELING SEEN

Lucas said the crosswalk made LGBTQ community members felt seen.

"We appreciated the people who supported us," they said.

Lussier said those in the gay-straight alliance can still find ways to promote inclusivity in the community. 

Some have already been putting up Pride flags in their yards. Some residents have asked the students to paint their garage doors or driveways in rainbows, Lussier added.

"There's a lot of little things that we can do that'll make the town … more colourful," Lussier said.

Westlock Mayor Jon Kramer has said the vote can't be undone by council unless a future plebiscite is held and calls for the ban to be rescinded.

But he said council will also find other ways to embrace marginalized groups, including those in the LGBTQ community. 

Kramer said there's no firm date to remove the rainbow crosswalk, but it will likely be some time in the spring. 

Lussier said it's been wild to have all of Alberta and the rest of the country aware of what's happening in the community.

"I was born and raised in Westlock, and I've never really heard people acknowledge that we are town that even exists, even in Alberta."

Lussier said most people have told the students they are supportive of their cause.

"There are just people doing everything they can to support us, now even more than ever.

"Our Instagram is blowing up."

LGBTQ ISSUES

LGBTQ issues have become more prominent among conservative provincial governments.

Most recently, Alberta's United Conservative Party government announced it plans in the fall to introduce rules requiring parental consent when students 15 and under want to change their names or pronouns at school. Students who are 16 and 17 would not need consent, but their parents would have to be notified.

The province also plans to restrict gender affirmation treatments, instruction on gender and sexuality in school, and the participation of transgender women in sports.

"It's attacks on all fronts at this point for trans kids and LGBT kids," Lussier said.

Lucas said those in the gay-straight alliance will continue to stay strong.

"We're going to do everything we can to give back to our community and show a little love and support and get a little love and support back."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2024.

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