More municipalities likely to follow Alberta town’s lead with crosswalk ban

OPINION: The structure in place that allowed for Westlock’s “neutrality” petition and bylaw shows the darker side of populism that people don’t like to talk about

There were national headlines made last week when the citizens of the town of Westlock, Alberta, voted in a new bylaw about “neutrality” in public settings that essentially bans rainbow crosswalks and Pride flags from town property. What is notable about this incident is that this arose from a citizens’ initiative, using tools that are supposed to lead to greater civic engagement, but, as with many of such tools proposed by populist governments, they are soon weaponized against minorities, and in particular, queer and trans communities. 

Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government introduced a pair of supposed “democratic reform” laws in 2022 that gives rise to citizens’ initiatives, which allow registered voters to petition either the provincial legislature or their municipal councils for new laws or bylaws, and to call for recall of elected officials, particularly at the municipal level and school boards. Currently there is a recall petition circulating to remove Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek, ostensibly for her increasing taxes and taking climate action. It was also motivated by her refusal to attend a menorah-lighting ceremony under concerns it had become politicized in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel—but the fact that she is a woman of colour is no doubt shaping how this kind of recall petition is playing out.

In the case of Westlock, resident Stephanie Bakker began circulating a petition to create this “neutrality” bylaw last year, and in media interviews insisted that she doesn’t have a problem with promoting “minority” communities, but that governments should “remain neutral.” This is a curious turn of phrase, because remaining neutral in the face of oppression can be a tacit endorsement of that oppression. When Bakker reached enough signatures, the petition forced the town council to draft the bylaw and either proceed with the legislative process, or to put it to a plebiscite. The council was opposed to the bylaw, preferring to ensure that their community was an inclusive place, so they put it to a plebiscite, which took place last month. The final results were a very narrow win for the “neutrality” bylaw, by 24 votes, and so the Pride crosswalk was painted over with black-and-white stripes.

Almost immediately after the Westlock vote, the town of Drumheller received a request to move in a similar direction, though pushback in the community was immediate. Because of the contagion effect that these kinds of bylaws have, particularly in more socially conservative rural environments, you can expect more to follow. It does not go unnoticed that as soon as one conservative government at a provincial or municipal level decides that it’s okay to attack queer and trans people, no matter how they dress it up, it creates a permission structure for others to follow suit. Contagion was one of the driving forces for one of the organizers who was pushing this petition. Benita Pedersen, who is associated with the influential right-wing group Take Back Alberta, didn’t initiate the petition, but was promoting it heavily, and wants this kind of action to spread to other communities.


“This is going to inspire people, not just in Westlock, but across the nation. It’s going to inspire people to stand up for what they believe in, even when their elected representatives are attempting to shove things upon a municipality that the people don’t agree with,” Petersen told the Edmonton Journal. She suggested that, in her view, Pride colours don’t represent equality, but favouritism. “It’s not appropriate for the symbols of special interest groups to be showcased in such a prominent way. It’s a form of bullying.”

We saw how this type of contagion happens with the moral panic around so-called “parental rights” that are attacking the rights in particular of trans or gender-diverse students in schools with new policies around parental notification of changed pronouns or preferred names. When New Brunswick moved ahead with amending their educational policy, Saskatchewan quickly followed suit and took it one step further by putting it in legislation and pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause to inoculate it against court challenges. (And also to inoculate the provincial government against any civil lawsuits from those harmed by the law.) Alberta then decided to take it another step further, with Danielle Smith announcing the intention to add restrictions on gender-affirming surgeries and hormone treatments, as well as banning trans women and girls from participation in women’s and girls’ sports—even though that shouldn’t be something that a provincial government would get involved in. Most sports organizations are able to set their own rules, and most have policies in place around trans participation.

Those permission structures around the tacit approval to make attacks against queer and trans people, no matter how much they are dressed up around “concerns” and adhering to moral panics, nevertheless send signals to the general public. Data coming from the U.S. shows that in places where protections for queer and trans people have been curtailed or removed, school hate crimes targeting LGBTQ2S+ students have more than quadrupled in 2021–2022 as compared to 2015–2019. In Canada, police-reported hate crimes have shown continual growth in attacks on the basis of sexual orientation, with the newly released 2022 figures showing another increase of 12 percent from the previous record high in 2021. One can only imagine how much more this will spike in the wake of those three provinces creating the permission structure to attack more queer and trans people.

When people are being told it’s okay to oppress vulnerable communities—especially if they can dress it up in the language of concern or in response to a moral panic—and are given the tools by which the majority are able to remove protections, like these “citizens’ initiatives,” we shouldn’t be surprised when or how they use them. This is the darker side of populism that people don’t like to talk about, and while most provinces don’t have this kind of legislation, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we don’t see more of it cropping up in other conservative provinces who are inspired by what Alberta has done.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

Read More About:
Politics, Opinion, Alberta, Canada

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