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Rights + Justice
Municipal Politics
Gender + Sexuality

Is It the End of the Rainbow for Smithers?

Maintaining the LGBTQIA2S+ crosswalk symbol costs thousands in northern climates. What’s the cost of losing it?

Amanda Follett Hosgood 31 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

The rainbow crosswalk in Smithers, B.C. has seen a lot of snowplows.

For nearly four years, it also saw spinning truck tires, children skipping to a nearby coffee shop and people parading during the northern town’s annual Pride event.

The traffic took its toll, and each year it was diligently repainted — once by a town contractor and twice by volunteers — until last fall, when it quietly disappeared and didn’t return.

The crosswalk, a symbol of LGBTQ+ solidarity located at the downtown’s busiest intersection, was originally removed to resurface the road. At the time, the town planned to repaint it in the spring, after the wear and tear of winter.

Instead, it’s become a victim of the high cost of road maintenance in northern climates, and the political and religious ideologies that would rather not see it return.

It’s also reopened a painful debate for the community it’s meant to support.

“I looked and it was gone, and I’m pretty sure I cried. I was so sad,” says Meghan Brady, who identifies as a queer community member and used to facilitate student discussions about homophobia, transphobia and bullying in northern schools. “There were feelings of erasure. There were feelings of just complete disregard of the impact of what that might mean.”

The crosswalk’s repainting was scrapped in April because it would put the town $1,047 over its $64,260 line-painting budget. The sole bid that the town received for repainting the crosswalk was $5,200, in addition to $60,107 for routine road painting.

Faced with the uncertainties of a pandemic, council chose to not repaint.

“Our last budget discussion came during the beginning of the COVID reality when it was already clear that we would have less income than we would normally have,” says Smithers acting mayor Gladys Atrill, who acknowledges the community divisions resulting from the decision.

She adds that line painting in northern climates — rainbow or otherwise — is an ongoing challenge.

“It’s a point of contention for council at every budget, that we spend money on paint, and it doesn’t last,” Atrill says. “The rainbow crosswalk paint — and I’m no expert on paint — is a different paint and it’s way more expensive, but all the other failings are the same.”

According to the town’s engineering department, road markings have presented a challenge for the past decade, since Environment Canada began requiring paint low in VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, to protect the environment and human health. While the line markings stand out when freshly painted, after a winter of snowplows they have all but disappeared.

In Smithers, the rainbow crosswalk is painted using MMA, or methyl methcrylate, a type of cold plastic paint that’s considered extremely durable. While regular line markings need to be reflective for safety reasons, the goal for the colourful crosswalk is that it maintains its vibrancy for aesthetic reasons.

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The rainbow crosswalk was a feature at last year’s Smithers Pride celebration. Photo by Sophie Perodeau.

Across the province, there are about 42 rainbow crosswalks, with all but six scattered across the south and Vancouver Island.

Vancouver’s rainbow crosswalks at Davie Street Village — the first in Canada — are also painted using MMA. However, the coastal climate means there is no annual maintenance other than power-washing, at a cost of $500 per crosswalk, according to Epa Duminda, the city’s manager of the Traffic, Electrical Operations and Design Branch.

Duminda adds that the city is pleased with the performance of its rainbow crosswalks.

In Smithers, the cost of repainting the crosswalk includes $3,600 in paint alone, with the remaining amount attributed to labour and equipment. Although volunteers have done the repainting the past two years, the engineering department says the need to provide equipment and staff oversight means there is little cost savings.

But opposition to the crosswalk is not entirely monetary.

When the discussion resurfaced this spring, it created an opening for those who oppose the symbol to write letters against its reinstatement.

The letter writers — many apparently connected to the same local church — use a similar format, praising council’s decision and suggesting alternatives to the rainbow crosswalk. Some cite religious beliefs and suggest the rainbow crosswalk singles out a particular “ideology” or “special interest group.”

One town councillor suggested the crosswalk be replaced with a table acknowledging everything from Indigenous groups to faith communities, industry, environmentalists and the RCMP.

Many opposed the expenditure of tax dollars on a symbol that they feel doesn’t represent their beliefs. Chelsea Mackay, a board member with Dawson Creek Pride Society, is quick to respond to that argument.

“I pay taxes. I’m a queer person. Every queer person I know in Dawson Creek pays taxes. We pay for things we’re never going to use. That’s what taxes are. They’re about supporting an entire community. It’s about pooling people’s resources in order to support everybody,” she says.

“I help pay for the maternity ward at the hospital even though I’m not going to have a baby. I help pay for schools even though I’m not going to have children who go to them. I pay for parks I may never visit. I pay for streetlamps on streets I don’t live on. That’s the nature of taxes.”

Dawson Creek’s rainbow crosswalk was the initiative of a city councillor, who brought it forward in 2016. The rainbow was painted in 2017, and the city takes responsibility for repainting. It was repainted three times this spring, twice following vandalism.

When the increase in vandalism — more than just the usual burnouts and skid marks — hit the crosswalk earlier this year, Mackay says it was “weirdly positive.” It led to dozens of volunteers stepping forward to ensure the rainbow crosswalk was repainted. One resident donated a security camera to monitor the site.

Although maintenance costs are built into the city’s budget, Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead says the volunteer effort encourages community buy-in: “Hopefully people will think twice [about vandalizing] when they see their aunt out there trying to fix it,” he says.

The city says the average cost to repaint the crosswalk when it’s vandalized is $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the extent of the damage. The Dawson Co-op has reached out to suggest the Pride Society apply for its Communities in Full Colour grant, which provides paint to local improvement projects.

Bumstead says the crosswalk’s message of inclusivity, tolerance and acceptance is important for the community. “Every time we have the opportunity to talk about it, that’s the message and it gives us the opportunity to bring that forward to the community,” he says.

Mackay adds that burdening those the crosswalk is intended to support with its upkeep and maintenance is counterintuitive. “[The vandalism] was a sign from people in the community that they don’t want you here. That you’re not welcome. That you are, perhaps, actively hated,” she says.

“To then say, not only do you have this vandalism against you that’s weighing you down, that’s making you feel unsafe and unhappy and unwelcome in your own city, now it’s your responsibility to go out and fix it and figure out a way that it can be cheap for taxpayers... What’s the point of that?”

Prince Rupert’s rainbow crosswalk solution may be one of the best in the north.

When deciding on a location six years ago, the community chose a walking bridge. The lack of vehicle traffic means the bridge only needs to be repainted every couple years and regular, exterior paint can be used. The cost is between $300 and $500 each time, says Prince Rupert Pride Society volunteer Christine Danroth.

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Prince Rupert Pride Society volunteer Christine Danroth helps to repaint the city's rainbow pathway. The rainbow, located on a walking bridge, has proven a success and only costs $300 to $500 to repaint every second year.

She adds that the society’s fundraiser selling colourful RUP ball caps, which colourfully represent the Rupert Pride community, raises more than enough to cover the costs. The hats also further raise LGBTQ+ visibility in the community.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it makes people feel like Prince Rupert is inclusive, that we welcome everybody,” Danroth says. “I think for the youth, it makes them feel like they can live and belong in their community and be proud of who they are. Everyone needs to feel in their hometown and home community that they belong there.”

While the rainbow bridge works as a crosswalk replacement, Smithers resident Perry Rath points out that a crosswalk provides a poignant metaphor of the powerful making way for the most vulnerable.

Rath is a high school teacher who started the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance more than a decade ago. He frequently talks with students about how the debate over the rainbow crosswalk — which started when it was first approved four years ago and has seen a recent resurgence — affects them.

“They felt super excited that there was going to be this very clear, visible welcoming symbol for them in their town, where they’ve always felt marginalized,” he says about when the crosswalk was originally announced. “On the other hand, they felt like suddenly the spotlight was on them and they were really uneasy about all the negative stuff that was coming out of it.”

The initial wave of letters denouncing the rainbow crosswalk was met with letters responding in favour, and Smithers council plans to revisit it this fall during 2021 budget discussions. Town administration has been asked to research options and costs.

One idea being explored is whether moving the crosswalk to mid-block, where it would see fewer braking vehicles and wear more slowly, could help. Another possibility is inlaying the MMA paint — making it flush with the pavement — which would cost an extra $2,500 but could extend the life of the crosswalk by an additional year.

In the meantime, rainbow flags have been hung at the intersection where the crosswalk used to be.

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A rainbow flag flies over the intersection in Smithers, BC where a rainbow crosswalk used to be. The symbol of LGBTQIA2S+ rights was cut from the town’s budget this spring due to concerns over COVID-19. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Advocates hope that the town will do a better job in the future of communicating with the LGBTQ+ and greater community about decisions regarding the crosswalk. “I think the optics of it for the larger province and for our local citizens are pretty bad,” Rath says.

Brady agrees. “I have queer friends ask me, ‘What’s Smithers like, if I were to come and live there?’ People want to come and move here. But they ask the queer person who lives there what their experience is. No lie, it’s not great,” she says.

“Towns want to be seen as safe, accepting spaces. So do that in the way that every other town is doing it, which is with a crosswalk.”  [Tyee]

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