British Columbia

B.C.'s 3rd and 4th biggest cities approve rainbow crosswalks in two very different ways

On Monday night, the municipalities joined many in B.C. in approving rainbow crosswalks, as a way of showing support for the LBGT community. Burnaby's decision was perfunctory: No public opposition and quick speeches by two councillors. In Richmond, things didn't wrap up until 11:30 p.m.

Societal change doesn't move in a smooth, straight line — even when two councils vote virtually the same way

Richmond council debates the installation of a rainbow crosswalk on June 24, 2019. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

One debate took two minutes. The other took two hours. 

On Monday night, the municipalities to the east and south of Vancouver joined many in B.C. in approving rainbow crosswalks in their communities, as a way of showing support for the LBGTQ community. 

In due time, both will be likely remembered in the same way, one clause in a sentence on the steady march of equality flattened out in history books.

But that's not quite how it played out in real time. 

Burnaby's decision was perfunctory: no public opposition and quick speeches by two councillors.

"It's high time that we show as a city our full backing for the LBGTQ+ community," said Burnaby Coun. Joe Keithley, and they quickly did just that, unanimously approving four crosswalks, using $35,000 from the city's gaming fund.

In Richmond, things didn't wrap up until 11:30 p.m.

Eventually, council voted 8-1 in favour of a single rainbow crosswalk at Minoru Boulevard, adjacent to the Richmond Library Cultural Centre — but not before plenty of speeches, a few rounds of applause for those speaking in opposition and a few tears.  

"A rainbow for the LGBTQ community is not political, it is not ideological. It is an affirmation of human rights and dignity. LGBTQ people face daily discrimination, and we must affirm that we love all our neighbours," said Coun. Kelly Greene, voice shaking as she explained her vote. 

Sometimes we gloss over the specifics of what members of the public say at council meetings: after all, the people who show up are a small sample size. Their words and actions are less consequential than those of elected officials.  

But sometimes, it's important to listen.

Societal changes don't happen in a smooth straight line and hearing from real people directly at a city council meeting is a good way of fully understanding that.   

What was said

Many speakers in Richmond repeated the same themes you hear at many a public meeting: additional public consultation is needed, a city shouldn't spend more money than it has to, and local governments shouldn't wade into social issues. 

Other arguments dipped into less predictable waters. 

"The rainbow crossing may cause confusion that the crossing is only for the LGBTQ community and not for the public to cross," said one.

"The city may face the challenge of how to react to different group requests, maybe a crosswalk for the Star of David for the Jewish," said another.  

"I refuse to refer to this symbol as rainbow. It's always bugging me why this rainbow is only six colours. Why not use the seven colours? Seven colours would include everybody," said another. 

The nature of public hearings is that all of these comments were made in front of councillors and left unchallenged. 

A rainbow crosswalk in Salmon Arm was vandalized twice last year, including an incident that saw tires marks burned onto the crosswalk. (Brian Bannister)

Why it matters

This isn't a debate confined to Richmond and Burnaby — there are at least 43 different communities in B.C. that have agreed to paint rainbow-coloured crosswalks. 

But while municipalities are sometimes confronted with the same questions, they can move at different speeds and with different levels of public interest.

The lack of standard process and a common set of information available to city staff is one of the reasons the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a motion last year asking the province to "inform and advise local governments on best practices to handle [rainbow crosswalk] requests and to provide financial and technical support."

"When we have issues that are challenging ... then perhaps that's a good time for the province to insert itself, not in an aggressive way, but in a process way," said George Affleck when he put forward the motion last year. 

After local governments asked the province for help, the province punted the issue to a national level, saying it was waiting for a review of the issue by the Transportation Association of Canada before committing help. 

Such is politics. 

And perhaps that's not an issue that can be "solved" with a standardized government process.

Sometimes, politicians just need to listen carefully — and make their own judgment.

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