WESTLOCK — Westlock residents will decide if they want to allow themed crosswalks and flags to be a part of the community when they vote in a plebiscite early in the New Year.
At the Nov. 27 council meeting, Town of Westlock councillors chose to go to a public vote Feb. 22, 2024, that will see residents decide whether or not to keep bylaw 2023-14, which would require the Town of Westlock to remove the existing rainbow crosswalk between the town hall and the Westlock Legion.
The two opposing sides are speaking out about the decision to allow the people to choose what happens with the bylaw.
Westlock resident Stephanie Bakker first presented the petition to create a ‘neutrality bylaw’ to town councillors in August and was also one of two people to speak out against the rainbow crosswalk at the June 12 council meeting.
Following Monday’s decision, she said councillors were passionate about their position but questioned their commitment to serving the community.
“I think that they don’t have much regard for what the community is asking for. They would like to just dismiss it as they said, a small radical group,” said Bakker, noting more than 700 signatures were collected for the petition. “That’s especially why there’s this petition because the community does not feel heard by them.
Bakker said councillors have been “very dismissive in their comments and belittling.”
“Clearly they have a very decided opinion on this and don’t seem to have very much room for tolerance as they say, for people that might be on the other side of the issue, that are just requesting that the government does not play favourites.”
She went on to say that Canada is a country with people from “all different kinds of backgrounds and beliefs” and that is what she and others love about the country.
“It is so many different people all coming together and what makes that great is that we have neutral spaces for the people to meet,” she added. “It is a free country, it’s neutral and anybody can come and be welcome.”
With the decision now made to go to a public vote on the bylaw, Bakker said she believes the opportunity will allow for everyone to be heard, regardless of the outcome.
“Either way the vote goes, whether It’s for or against the bylaw, at least then it will have been chosen by the people,” she said. “If the town votes against the bylaw, I don’t intend to do further action because the town’s been able to say (what they want) … I felt the people should at least have a chance to say something and if they just agree with the council, so be it.”
While staff members of the gay-straight alliance (GSA) Thunder Alliance, at R.F. Staples school could not comment on the bylaw, the GSA’s student leadership did release a statement following news of the plebiscite and said they are filled with "gratitude and hope."
"The proposed bylaw may seem simple and innocent, but we see it for what it is,” the statement read.
“We may be students, but we do understand. Having the bill move to a plebiscite is the next step that must be done, but it brings fear. Fear that the positive changes and the safety that we as a community have created will be erased," the statement read.
The students said they are grateful for a town that embraces diversity and fights for equality and justice for all.
"We can remain hopeful because this town and its people have already shown us that they are people with integrity who want to be part of a positive, inclusive community, not part of a divided one,” the statement continued.
“Whatever the outcome, we know that this town and our Thunder Alliance will always be there, doing all we can to ensure that our community remains a safe and positive environment for all.”
Bakker commented on the date chosen for the plebiscite — a separate date from the byelection that’s being held to elect a new mayor and one new councillor, set for Jan. 10, 2024.
“They just spoke about how they feel us doing this petition is a waste of energy and resources and then to schedule the vote on a completely different day than the (byelection) is a squandering of taxpayers money and I have to wonder why they’re pushing it so far back,” said Bakker. “I feel if they really cared about resources and the community, they would put both votes together, that would make the most sense.”
Following the Nov. 27 meeting, town councillors and Town of Westlock staff did clarify the reasoning for the two separate votes as well as provided an estimated cost for both the byelection and the plebiscite.
“They are two separate matters. The byelection deals with the election of councillors and the plebiscite is a totally separate matter,” said acting mayor Murtaza Jamaly, noting different timing and date provisions for each vote. “There’s the 90 days to deal with the plebiscite matter and different date requirements for the byelection.”
Coun. Curtis Snell said “I think we looked to get the byelection going as soon as possible, (to have) a mayor in place and a new councillor,” he said, agreeing with Jamaly, saying that the two are separate issues.
Town of Westlock CAO Simone Wiley said there was “a small amount of money in the 2024 draft operating budget for the byelection and the plebiscite in 2024.
“It’s staff time that is predominantly the cost associated with it, but we have put (money) in for some of the actual supplies that are needed, a small amount of $2,000 in the budget for both,” said Wiley.
Westlock residents will elect a new mayor and one councillor Jan. 10, 2024 while the plebiscite on the bylaw will be held Feb. 22, 2024.