CORRECTION: This story has been edited to correctly identify the name of the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at Smithers Secondary School.
For Smithers Pride Society (SPS) vice-president Perry Rath, the implications of the Town’s decision to forgo repainting its rainbow crosswalk at Main Street and Second Avenue are clear.
“Smithers is being labelled as the town that got rid of the rainbow crosswalk,” Rath said.
At their June 9 meeting the Town voted to raise two rainbow flags at the corner of Main and Second — where the crosswalk has been located in previous years — in lieu of repainting the section.
And while Rath said he thinks the flags were beneficial in the sense that they ensured some visibility for the local 2SLGBTQ+ community, he added that the overwhelming response he has heard from the local community, and from people who live outside of the town, is that this is not enough.
“Some people might see that as an acceptable replacement but we don’t,” he said, adding that the discussions he has had with members of the local queer community have been essentially universal with regard to the sentiment that the flags are not an adequate long-term replacement for the crosswalk.
He said in the month-and-a-half since council made the decision that he, along with many others on the Smithers Pride board, have been conducting outreach to the community to hear their thoughts on the matter.
“People are saying it’s clear we need the sidewalk back,” he said.
Rath said beyond the issue of painting the crosswalk SPS feels the Town could have done more to consult them about the initial decision, adding that he first heard about its removal last year, happening because the town was repaving the intersection, through a phone call he received from a community member asking if he knew where it had gone.
“I had no idea what’s going on,” he said. “Eventually there was an announcement on the town website that this was happening and that it was going to be repainted in spring, so we were, like, OK, that’s fine, wintertime, you know?”
However as winter began its yearly thaw a new threat emerged: COVID-19.
To that point, Rath said he was tagged in a comment after council made their June 9 decision to raise the flags in lieu of repainting the crosswalk. The decision was made as the Town attempted to look at financial areas they could potentially roll back or reduce fees for.
He said he feels the decision was done in a way that didn’t properly consult the SPS.
“My initial reaction was shock, really,” Rath said. “It was a little bit dismaying that it had to be retroactive like that in terms of how we got involved.”
The Town’s rationale for the decision comes as a result of a sole $5,200 bid for the repaving, which Director of Development Services Mark Allen noted at the time was comparable to what it cost the Town to do it in previous years.
The issue from the Town’s financial perspective was that on top of a $60,108 traffic contract with an approved budget of $64,260, that the total cost of the bid would bring the project in at just $1,047 over budget, which would need to be drawn from road maintenance funds. Allen added that would take away from other necessary repairs.
But while Rath acknowledged the importance of financial decisions in a municipality’s operations, he added he felt that the extra cash was a small price to pay in support of 2SLGBTQ+ visibility. Likewise, he said he found the price tag associated with the project a little surprising, adding he had heard estimates in the surrounding area — Edmonton, for example — coming in at thousands of dollars less than Smithers’ bid.
Part of the reason the Town has repaved the crosswalk on an annual basis is to re-beautify it after a year exposed to the elements and general road-related wear and tear. However, Rath noted the similarity in weather conditions between Smithers and a number of other municipalities — both small and large — that have their own rainbow crosswalks.
“There’s other towns in the north who [also] deal with snowplows who just make it happen,” he said. “The municipality needs to show their support for this segment of the community, because it’s pretty crucial.”
Even when speaking to people outside of the region Rath says he is hearing a resounding message of support for the project and a sense of sadness associated with the Town’s decision not to repaint it for 2020.
“Even people out of region have said that, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that Smithers doesn’t have a rainbow crosswalk anymore and that makes me think twice about going there as a destination,’” he said. “It’s hurting our town’s image.”
On that note, Rath said the SPS, which has seen significant growth in its own Pride events since it hosted its first community pride in 2018, only plans to make the event larger in coming years (a virtual, online pride was held in 2020 as a result of COVID-19) and sees it as a significant means of creating future tourist and economic opportunities for the Town in coming years.
“We’re building this into a tourist attraction,” he explained. “So we feel it’s now part of our cultural landscape of Smithers.”
On the topic of repainting the crosswalk and the amount of money required to create the display, the SPS vice president also pointed out that many other communities use alternative methods of ensuring long-lasting road markings.
These include hydro-plastics and other durable materials which don’t weather the same way as paint on the outer surface of a crosswalk.
As it was in 2015 when council at the time discussed it, the decision was not without controversy, with a significant number of letters sent to the Town both in support and opposed to the crosswalk.
For Rath, who himself wrote a number of letters to council from the SPS’ perspective on the matter, the opposition to the symbol nearly five years after the initial decision was a stark reminder of what he classified as unfortunate but very real attitudes held by a segment of the population opposed to the 2SLGBTQ+ community on a variety of grounds.
“It’s like we have to re-defend people’s existence,” he said, adding when the crosswalk was initially proposed one of the hardest things he had to do was comfort queer students (Rath works as a teacher and is also involved with the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at Smithers Secondary School) who were feeling upset about the vocal opposition to the proposition.
“It was just hard to counsel young people that there’s people out there that don’t believe they should exist the way they exist, that don’t believe in their life,” he said, adding that the conversation is no easier this time around.
While a number of those in opposition to the crosswalk highlighted religious opposition as their main reason for objecting, Rath also said he was extremely grateful to what he characterized as a large segment of the Christian community that does validate 2SLGBTQ+ identity.
“I’m glad we have those voices to counter the anti-queer voices from certain segments of the Christian population,” he said.
Rath added he would like to appeal to people who might oppose the crosswalk on religious grounds to think about who Jesus was and to not express anger or disagreement with someone who is simply living their own life and not causing harm or pain to others.
“They’re not the people who should be judging that,” he said.
Even if council were to make a decision on the crosswalk at their mid-July meeting, Rath pointed out that beginning the painting process would take over a month, putting it very close to the beginning of snowfall.
He said that, in retrospect, it’s too bad the decision could not have been brought up or discussed with the SPS earlier.
“It all happened without proper community discussion, really, or at least consulting the main stakeholders of this, which are the Smithers Pride Society as representatives of the queer community.”
But despite a sense in the community that the two rainbow flags the Town installed June 18th at the same intersection are not an adequate long-term solution to promote 2SLGBTQ+ visibility within Smithers, he said this decision won’t change the SPS’ commitment to growing that same visibility and support within the community.
To that point, he said the SPS will be making a number of decal stickers showcasing the iconic rainbow for businesses to put in their windows as a show of solidarity with the community.
Rath added that, while he knows there is enough community support to get the sidewalk painted by volunteers and local donations, he would like to see the Town putting their weight behind it in the form of financial support.
Likewise, with regard to a growing sentiment he has heard characterizing Smithers as the town that got rid of its rainbow crosswalk, he didn’t mince words.
“That is pretty harsh for a town’s image.”