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Rainbow crosswalks and the 2030 Agenda

This article is the second in a four-part series on how conspiracy theories and theorists are impacting municipal governments.
pride crosswalk vandalized CC 9986.eps
Pride crosswalks have been the target of vandalism and hate-motivated incidents throughout Alberta.

This article is the second in a four-part series on how conspiracy theories and theorists are impacting municipal governments.

Part 1: Conspiracists and democratic deficits collide in Alberta municipal governments

Part 3: Democratic deficit and support for Canadian institutions

Part 4: Think global(ist). Act local(ish).

In May 2023, members of the Thunder Alliance, the gay-straight alliance group at R.F. Staples Secondary School in Westlock, brought a proposal to Westlock town council to paint a rainbow Pride crosswalk on the street outside the town office.

Mayor Jon Kramer, who works as an educational assistant, said town council was impressed by how thorough and professional the students’ presentation was.

“They presented a fantastic package to council. They had research. They had examples from other communities. They had raised the funds for it. It was textbook the way it was done. It was just awesome,” Kramer said.

Council unanimously supported a motion allowing the group to paint the crosswalk, saying it was a way to foster community spirit and bridge existing divisions within society.

When Benita Pedersen read about plans for the rainbow crosswalk in the local Town and Country Today newspaper, she saw something more nefarious.

“I would say this is a concerning symbol because it's affiliated with the United Nations. It's part of the depopulation agenda,” Pedersen said on the Shadoe at Night podcast.

A prominent far-right activist in Alberta, Pedersen gained notoriety for leading protests against vaccines and public health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was Take Back Alberta’s Edmonton-area director until being asked to move on for lacking “message discipline” last fall.

Pedersen produced flyers in opposition to the crosswalk, distributed in town and online, which included the e-mails and phone numbers of councillors and a call to action.

“I stated on there the transgender agenda and the depopulation agenda. I was talking about Agenda 2030, which is over some people's heads. Like, they can't get it. They don't understand the United Nations' interference in local politics,” she told Shadoe.

The original rainbow flag was designed by activists from the queer community in 1978. In 2018, graphic designer Daniel Quasar created the Progress Pride Flag, which incorporates a right-facing chevron with additional colours to explicitly represent people of colour and the transgender community. Over the last 10 years, both designs have been painted on crosswalks independently by municipalities across the world, usually to coincide with local Pride celebrations.

In Alberta, rainbow crosswalks have been targeted with vandalism in Okotoks, Medicine Hat, Strathmore, Ponoka, and Spruce Grove, where a severed pigs head was left on the Pride crosswalk, which was investigated as a hate crime. Along with the uptick in hate incidents targeting the 2SLGBTQ+ community, local councils have had to contend with unfounded conspiracies surrounding Pride symbolism and the hostility these ideas provoke.

At public hearing in Leduc in July 2023, the city council meeting was temporarily shut down when residents launched into a tirade about Pride flags and the city’s rainbow crosswalk. Two speakers accused the council of promoting the “gay agenda,” falsely claimed there is a “secret hidden agenda” behind the Pride flag colours officials weren’t aware of which promotes necrophilia, bestiality, and pedophilia, and told councillors that if the flags and crosswalk “don’t go, we’re coming. And there are lots of us.”

David Thomas, part of the team that campaigned against the Pride crosswalk in Westlock, similarly questioned whether the town council understood the “deeply divisive and damaging agenda” behind the rainbow symbolism and repeated the same false claims about what the flag stood for.

During the pushback against the rainbow crosswalk, town officials were inundated with phone calls from across Canada, which Kramer said were a mix of positive, negative, and spam. The town eventually removed personal phone numbers from its website to limit the time these calls were consuming.

“The shift does cut down on time spent dealing with folks outside of the community (I did field quite a few calls from individuals across Canada in the past couple months, and most were in the 20-30-minute range),” Kramer said in an e-mail.

Though the first petition to overturn the council decision only garnered 124 signatures, the crosswalk became a major issue during Westlock’s byelection, in which Pedersen unsuccessfully ran for a council seat. But the campaign against the council decision continued, being rebranded as an issue of “neutrality” in government, and eventually gained enough signatures to force a plebiscite on a bylaw which outlawed the rainbow crosswalk and any non-civic, provincial, or national flags on town property. The plebiscite passed narrowly in February 2024.

Kramer said during the plebiscite other municipal leaders were watching what was unfolding in Westlock.

“We're almost a trial run in a situation like this. When you look at a city like Edmonton or Calgary, could they ever meet the threshold of signatures in a time span like that?”

Under the Municipal Government Act, petitioners must gather signatures from 10 per cent of the population to create a plebiscite on a bylaw, a high bar for large population centres. The high-profile campaign to recall Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, for example, only pulled in signatures from five per cent of the population.

In a community of under 5,000 like Westlock, or any of the smaller towns and villages in rural Alberta, the necessary signatures are easier to attain, and the process more subject to misuse. The time taken up by administration in dealing with these campaigns and plebiscites “is a massive strain on small teams,” Kramer said.

Citizens need a mechanism to call elected officials on poor decisions, “but when you look at it being used as a tool for something like this, you think that the provincial government has to protect our team, protect our interests, to put some better guide rails on things like this… put some better checks and balances in and make it functional for everybody,” he said.

Part 3 of our series on conspiracy and municipal governments looks at how to fight voter apathy without distorting data and playing to people’s fear.

Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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