Owen Sound Police Raise Pride Flag After City Council Refuses

"People should not be persecuted for who they are, or who they love."

In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting that left 49 killed in a gay nightclub, many across Canada have paid tribute by raising pride rainbow flags high, draping them around their shoulders, or flying them at half-mast.

But the LGBTQ residents in the southern Ontario town of Owen Sound have been asking their city for support and recognition, with little success.

For the past 11 years, Owen Sound City Council has banned rainbow flags from being raised at city hall.

However, that didn’t stop Owen Sound’s official Facebook page from welcoming Pride Month with a photo of a waving rainbow flag.

The irony was not lost on some Owen Sound residents, including retiree Joan Beecroft. As a former chair of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s Human Rights Committee, she had succeeded in getting approval to fly a rainbow flag over city hall in 2005. A group of anti-gay protesters tried to shut down the flag-raising ceremony, heckling one councillor’s son as a child who “shouldn’t have been born.”

After that, city policy was changed to ban all flags from flying over city properties, with the exception of flags representing government and certain holiday-specific flags, such as one for Remembrance Day.

Update: Owen Sound City Council's communications advisor Peter Aylan-Parker told The Huffington Post Canada in an email:

"The City of Owen Sound has had a policy for many years respecting the use of our municipal flagpole, city proclamations, and public awareness campaigns. This policy states that the City will only fly specific flags (e.g. Canadian Flag, City Flag, Provincial Flag, etc.). All flags are flown in accordance with the etiquette established by Heritage Canada."

“[It’s a] cowardly policy, 10 years out of date,” Beecroft told The Huffington Post Canada. “Things have changed in the country and everywhere else."

In response to city council’s decision, residents have taken to decking their homes and businesses with pride flags.

Fortunately, the Owen Sound Police Department didn't follow city hall's footsteps, conducting its own official flag-raising ceremony on Monday, June 20, at police headquarters.

Police chief Bill Sornberger announced that "the safety of every [community] member is paramount," Owen Sound Hub reports.

Their pride flag will fly for the rest of the month.

Former mayor Deb Haswell was part of the council that voted 5-4 to ban community flags.

At the time, Haswell says it was a way to prevent distressful disapproval, like what occurred with protesters who shouted at a councilor's son in 2005.

"At the time, that was the admin[istration]'s sort of way to... get away with not dealing with it," Haswell said.

Now, Haswell, who is openly gay, told The Huffington Post Canada that the decision to uphold the ban on all flags is a cop-out.

“I think the message it sends broadly is that this means Owen Sound doesn’t support anything, anywhere, anytime,” Haswell said. “I can’t think of an easier or open time in [the] history of this country, to hoist that flag. If ever there was an easier way to do it, it would be now.”

Haswell said she was unhappy to hear that no city representatives attended a recent vigil for the Orlando shooting victims held in Owen Sound, especially since the mayor or other city officials are expected to appear at most public events. Sources confirm that they did not witness anyone at the vigil who went on behalf of Owen Sound City Council.

“It’s disappointing that the mayor or council doesn’t have conviction to show leadership,” she said.

Owen Sound City Council has previously ignored its own flag-flying policies. Council flew a flag for its "sister city" Miamisburg, Ohio, for six months. The flag’s existence was largely ignored, Owen Sound Hub publisher Anne Finlay-Stewart told HuffPost Canada.

“If you polled people here, most would not know. It has no impact on people here,” Finlay-Stewart said. “Whereas, a pride flag says we actually support [LGBT] people here, who raise children and pay taxes.”

Grey Bruce Pride chair MaryAnn Thomas pointed this out to council as precedent for a policy overhaul last year, however the council chose to uphold their stance.

“I can’t think of an easier or open time in [the] history of this country, to hoist that flag. If ever there was an easier way to do it, it would be now.”

Stevie Forbes-Roberts, an ARCH HIV/AIDS resources coordinator, told The Huffington Post Canada that the decision will have repercussions for Owen Sound’s queer and trans residents.

“There’s a concern that because of what happened in Orlando, more youth will not be coming out and living with more self-internalized shame,” Stevie said. “Then there’s people who have been out their whole lives and live in Owen Sound. [They] deserve for city hall to recognize their identities.”

While city hall won't see rainbow banners flapping overhead anytime soon, Owen Sound political representatives have spoken out about Pride Month.

Mayor Ian Boddy acknowledged the Orlando shootings as he opened a city council meeting on June 13, and urged residents to attend Pride festivities.

“People should not be persecuted for who they are, or who they love, what they do, what they come home to, what colour their skin is, where they live,” Boddy said. “Today I want to be clear that we stand with Orlando and with the worldwide LGBT community.”

In an open letter to Owen Sound Hub, Owen Sound MP Larry Miller condemned the Orlando attacks as an act of “radical Islam.”

Miller, an outspoken Conservative MP, had asked niqab-wearing Muslims to “stay the hell where you came from,” on a radio show debate during the last federal election.

He had previously argued that the Liberal long gun registry was akin to policies approved by Adolf Hitler. Miller has since apologized for both statements.

“People should not be persecuted for who they are, or who they love, what they do, what they come home to, what colour their skin is, where they live.”

Owen Sound is not the only Canadian town to squabble with the pride flag. Since 2007, Truro, N.S. has officially banned flying the pride flag. However, the Orlando mass shooting led the town to fly the pride flag for the first time, and at half-mast.

For Beecroft and others, the pride flag represents how, in a small way, their home respects them.

“Flags are a real small thing. When you see your flag flying… it means you’re part of the city. You belong there,” Beecroft said. “And when there aren’t any at all, I think that’s a statement too.”

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