Storm erupts over rainbow crosswalk request in St. Stephen

Editor’s note:
We will be following this story as it unfolds. See an update in Tuesday’s Courier.

St. Stephen – It was expected to be a no-contest, slam dunk decision.
It wasn’t.
Students who are members of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at St. Stephen Middle School want to paint a rainbow crosswalk by their school on Marks Street. They will have to wait until the end of November to see if town council approves their request.

After an almost hour long, sometimes heated, discussion Wednesday night, members of St. Stephen Town council decided they wanted more information.
SSMS principal Bronwyn Tanner, and teachers Kayla Cousins and Jenna Densmore, all spoke eloquently and informatively on the importance of inclusion on behalf of the students. Council asked them for more time to make a decision whether to allow the crosswalk. Council also wants more information behind the concept of rainbow crosswalks.

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The three educators were asked to make a presentation at council’s November committee meeting to provide information on the background of rainbow crosswalks and how they believe it would impact the community.
“Anything that related to it,” said Mayor Allan MacEachern.

The 24 students in the GSA had written and signed a letter to council asking for its permission to change the white crosswalk “into a rainbow pride symbol of acceptance, diversity and equality,” adding they believed by doing so it would be the first step in educating the community by raising awareness to foster a more inclusive environment.
They will pay for the paint and what costs they don’t cover will be picked up by the school, said Tanner.

“I’m a bit flabbergasted at this point that elected members of our community are unable to come to the conclusions that our kids were so quickly able to come to in our school,” said Cousins, who became increasingly emotional as she spoke after the meeting.
“My own children are at home right now missing me, while I’m here standing up for other people’s children – that elected officials in this town are not willing to do.”

She said statistics show 50 per cent of transgender students will attempt suicide in their teen years, and one in four LGBT students will attempt suicide.
They fight for acceptance for their differences all the time, said Cousins.
“It’s the message they get every day, it just hasn’t been this clear before.”

She noted council asked what happens when vandals destroy the sidewalk.
“We said we paint it and paint it again, and again and again and again.”
“I just can’t believe vandalism is what’s coming between it (the permission),” said Densmore. “If you don’t move forward you’re never going to get anywhere.”

During the meeting Tanner said the town shouldn’t shy aware from permission because someone might do something to the crosswalk.
Tanner said if that was the case “who’s winning?”

“Our future is our youth and this is important to them.”

Densmore said the crosswalk was a symbol to promote inclusion and acceptance, and that the school hoped to stage a seminar for people who don’t know what it means.
Deputy Mayor Jason Carr, and Coun. David Hyslop said they weren’t in favour of the crosswalk, and voiced concerns about using symbols within the town, asking what other group would next want to ask to paint a symbol in public.
The two wanted to know if there was some other way the students could celebrate their diversity.
MacEachern suggested the students paint a mural instead of the crosswalk. He said he was trying to spare them and the community the distress of seeing the rainbow crosswalk defaced by vandalism which has happened in one New Brunswick community.

After the meeting, MacEachern said, in retrospect, he was wrong to suggest a mural.
“I really liked the mural idea, of everyone getting their hands dirty and painting the mural together,” said MacEachern, saying he is still moved by the community effort to paint the Canada 150 mural at the Garcelon Civic Center.

“I was wrong in trying to protect the town from that,” he said, referring to the possibility of vandalism.

He said the purpose of council committee meetings was to allow the councillors to become educated on issues and to engage the public in discussion. MacEachern said he didn’t push council for an immediate decision on whether to allow the crosswalk because he would “lose the chance to talk to this group again.”
“This is not a little issue and it’s not easy for anybody.”

“It’s about accepting people for who they are and being a unified community.”

~ Saint Croix MLA John Ames

Coun. Phil Chisholm said he was concerned over the cost of repainting a vandalized crosswalk and noted his research had shown the issue of rainbow crosswalks in other communities has been “divisive.”
He said putting a story about the council meeting in the newspaper would make the issue more divisive.

“The more people you include … all we’ve got to do is look across the border and we see divisive every day.
“We don’t want a plebiscite; it can’t become who is in favour of this and who isn’t,” said Chisholm.
Coun. Ghislaine Wheaton, and Coun. Ken Parker kept saying they wanted more information.
Coun. Marg Harding, from the beginning, said she’d support the crosswalk, but wouldn’t mind more information.

Carr said he wouldn’t support it and that a rainbow crosswalk certainly didn’t make him feel included despite Bronwyn’s continued statements of inclusion. And he confirmed he objected for religious reasons referring to the rainbow being used as something other than God’s promise.

Saint Croix MLA John Ames, the province’s minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, said he believed St. Stephen was “open minded, accepting and tolerant.” And hoped the town council would continue to exhibit the leadership it had in the past.

Ames said he was proud of the students for having the courage to approach community leaders for permission for their project.
He noted the issue of a rainbow sidewalk has been contentious in other communities at first, but “those are growing pains.”

He said the crosswalks are about “accepting everyone and where they come from.”
Ames suggested more education is needed for town council and residents on the concept of the rainbow crosswalks.

As a former teacher, Ames said he has seen “firsthand what kids have to go through.”
“I’ve seen the positive impact an alliance in school has had.”
He said it is far different from when he was a student in school and kids were “deathly afraid to come out of the closet.”

“We shouldn’t have people afraid of being who they are.”
Ames said granting permission for a sidewalk is not about advocating any type of sexuality preference.

“It’s about accepting people for who they are and being a unified community.”

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Kathy Bockus
Journalist Kathy Bockus is based in St. Stephen and has worked for The Saint Croix Courier as a general news reporter and feature writer for the past 15 years. She began her lengthy newspaper career in 1974 with a daily in Saint John. Bockus says she always jokes being a reporter is a licence to be nosey, but firmly believes that everyone has a story to tell. She can be contacted at 321-0759.