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Petawawa fails to fly Pride flag again, citing what some call an 'outdated' policy

Members of the LGBTQ community in a small eastern Ontario town are frustrated and demanding change, after their mayor dismissed their request to fly the Pride flag during Pride Month again, citing a 1998 town policy.

LGBTQ residents asked council to reconsider raising flag, but mayor stands ground

A rainbow flag hangs from a fence.
A rainbow flag is affixed to a fence in Petawawa, Ont., on June 25, 2022. Some residents in the eastern Ontario community say they're frustrated after the municipality refused to fly the Pride flag at town hall yet again this June, citing a 1998 policy banning 'public proclamations.' (Patrick Louiseize/Radio-Canada)

Members and allies of the LGBTQ community in Petawawa, Ont., are frustrated and seeking change after their mayor dismissed their request to fly the Pride flag at town hall, again, citing a town policy they believe is "outdated."

"We don't have any Pride events in Petawawa. There's nothing. Nothing at all. There's no march, there's no picnics, flags don't fly," said Jennifer Neville, a resident who is asking the town to reconsider its decision.

"Our town does nothing."

This isn't the first time the town refused to raise the Pride Flag at town hall, despite repeated requests by residents.

The town council failed to pass a motion last June to reconsider a decades-old resolution that prevents the municipality from flying the Pride flag, or any other flag that shows support for a cause, at municipal buildings. Resolution 11, passed in 1998, says council can't declare any "public proclamations" unless they "pertain to matters which are solely and completely within the immediate mandate of council."

Mayor Bob Sweet and councillors Tom Mohns and Murray Rutz voted against the motion, defeating it. The motion needed the support of five of the seven-member council to pass.

With Pride Month approaching in June, Neville wrote a letter in May to town council on behalf of the town's LGBTQ community, asking to meet with the mayor and councillors who voted against amending the policy last year, and to make a formal request to fly the flag this year. 

Councillors in the back row voted in favour of amending Resolution 11, to allow the town to show support for various events last June. The front row all voted against the changes. From left to right: Coun. Tom Mohns, Mayor Bob Sweet, and Coun. Murray Rutz. (Town of Petawawa website)

In a letter dated May 31, Sweet reminded Neville of the town policy that "respectfully declines supporting any declarations" like flying the Pride flag.

"Residents need to respect the fact that council has policies ... which need to be adhered to," he wrote.

It would just be so nice to get the town that I've lived in my whole life to fly my flag.- Seth Crosby, high school student

Sweet told Neville that since the motion was defeated, it wouldn't be reconsidered until 12 months have passed due to a bylaw — after June 21, 2022.

"At no time did members of council vote against raising the Pride flag," he wrote. "Unfortunately, many have misinterpreted this and have made this a discussion about the Pride flag, when rather it is a discussion about whether council should amend or repeal its policy."

Meeting with mayor unfruitful, residents say

Neville, an ally of the LGBTQ community, explained why it's important for the town to raise the flag this month.

"It's a beacon of hope, and it's a sign of acceptance and inclusion that [the] Pride community can identify with, and feel safe and accepted."

She met with the mayor a few weeks ago but was given the same answer: Resolution 11 — something she calls an "outdated" policy.

"It's frustrating," she said.

A student holds up a rainbow flag, as they sit on grass.
Seth Crosby is holding up a Pride flag. The high school student is advocating for the town to fly the Pride flag at its town hall. (Submitted by Seth Crosby)

Seth Crosby, a Petawawa high school student, joined Neville during that meeting.

"It was frustrating to get told the same thing over again," said Crosby. "You kind of feel stuck."

Crosby says the policy should be amended to be inclusive of the community it serves.

"At some point some rules have to change," they said. "It would just be so nice to get the town that I've lived in my whole life to fly my flag and my colours. It would be really cool."

WATCH | Student says their opinion often dismissed

Petawawa refuses to raise Pride flag at town hall, citing policy

2 months ago
Duration 0:58
Petawawa, Ont., currently adheres to a decades-old resolution that prevents the municipality from flying any flag at municipal buildings that shows support for a cause. High school student Seth Crosby says it’s time for that policy to change.

Mayor says town must be 'neutral' at all times

In an interview with CBC, Sweet said Resolution 11 has "served this community very, very well," by keeping the town "neutral" by not flying flags for any cause. 

He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of protections for abortion set out in Roe v. Wade, as an example he shared with Neville.

"The recent mess that's going to happen in the United States with Wade and Roe. I said which one of those should I proclaim? Should I proclaim the right to choose, or should I the right to life? It's between a rock and a hard place there," he said. 

"If we proclaim one, we get 54 per cent of the population up in arms." 

WATCH | Resident describes being shut down by mayor

Resident pushing for ‘some kind of acknowledgement’ for LGBTQ community in Petawawa

2 months ago
Duration 1:07
Jennifer Neville, a resident of Petawawa, Ont., says she’s pushed the town to reconsider its decision not to fly the Pride flag during Pride Month in June.

He said he doesn't understand why residents are upset over council not raising the flag at town hall.

"I asked [Neville] that. I said, 'what is it you cannot do in this town that you could do if we had a Pride flag flying?'" said Sweet.

"Could you have a gay pride golf tournament? Could you have a gay pride ball tournament? Yes, yes, yes. What is it you cannot do that you could do by flying a flag?"

He said the LGBTQ community has approached council to fly the flag ever year for the past four years.

Sweet said he doesn't plan on putting forward the motion to debate amending Resolution 11 himself and that it would have to be another council member.

He repeatedly said "I don't know," when asked if council will debate the motion again this year.

Its next meeting is scheduled for July 4, days after the end of Pride Month.

'On the wrong side of history'

Becky Conroy says she and other members of the Petawawa LGBTQ community are discouraged. 

"I'm shocked because it seems like in 2022, this shouldn't even be a discussion," she said. "As a gay woman, as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, it's insulting and it's discouraging." 

Conroy, who works at a school in neighbouring Pembroke, Ont., says the contrast between the two communities is stark.

Pembroke made a proclamation for Pride Month and flew the flag on its municipal building. Conroy said she and many Petawawa residents go there during Pride Month to take part in its various events, which the city supports and is a partner in. 

"I feel like in politics or in anything we do, we should be looking at things with an equity lens," Conroy said. "We are on the wrong side of history here."

People are hugging and laughing on a street full of colourful flags and rainbow decorations.
People celebrate Pride Month at Pembroke Pride Street Festival in Pembroke, Ont., on June 4, 2022. Residents of Petawawa say they travel to Pembroke to celebrate Pride events because of a lack of celebrations in their town. (Tim Graham)

Town's list of rejected causes

In an email to Neville, the town sent a list of 33 "proclamation requests" that it said it has denied since 2007 due to the same policy.

It includes: day of action against anti-Asian racism; military family appreciation day; poutine feast week; children's mental health week; eating disorder awareness week; prostate cancer awareness month; Franco-Ontarian Day; and European heritage week.

"I don't know what the big argument is. [They're] free to do just about anything you want, but we will not proclaim any particular event," said Sweet.

"I'm not sure I understand why there's such a kickback or pushback on this. I can't understand what it is that they feel that they cannot do in our community. I really don't."

Sweet said he asked Neville how the town can show support for the LGBTQ community without flying a flag.

Neville plans on bringing a list of suggestions to the July 4 council meeting. 

"I'm hoping that these proposals that I bring forward are accepted ... so that for Pride Month next year in 2023, we can have some kind of events or some kind of acknowledgement in our community."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang

Reporter/Editor

Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca.

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