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Norwich votes 'yes' to flag ban; 'no' to Pride Month, DEI committee

A community in Oxford County is moving forward with a motion to ban non-government flags on municipal property, all while refusing to declare June as Pride Month and establish a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee.

The flag policy bylaw will allow only federal, provincial, and municipal flags to be flown on Norwich property.

Ward 1 Councillor John Scholten brought forward the motion on March 28, sparking some support and some backlash from the public.

In response to the motion, dozens of messages flooded in from members of the community. Many agreed with the idea of barring non-government flags, while others said the move would be a slippery slope to silencing diverse voices and condoning hate in Norwich.

After some heated discussion and delegations from eight community voices, Norwich’s council members voted 3-2 in favour of the flag ban.

Scholten was joined by Norwich Mayor Jim Palmer and Ward 4 Councillor Adrian Couwenberg in supporting the bylaw, citing that only flying flags that are inclusive of everybody in Norwich will help the community "live in peace and harmony".

At least one of the three people who voted "yes" to the ban reportedly has strong ties to a local reformed church.

Many residents of Norwich and surrounding areas were also in favour of the flag ban, as shown through a petition that has collected hundreds of signatures. Three of the eight delegations on Tuesday night came from proponents of the motion. A letter of support was also submitted by the Free Reformed Church of Oxford County.

Voting against the motion was Ward 2 Councillor Alisha Stubbs and Ward 3 Councillor Shawn Gear.

Five of the eight delegations at Tuesday’s meeting took a stance against the flag ban, saying that the Pride flag is not a divisive symbol, but one that promotes safety and wellbeing for *2SLGTBQIA+ individuals.

“This is discrimination. It’s homophobic, transphobic, and biphobic. It’s also discrimination against the BIPOC community, as we have had specifically Progress Pride flags banned,” said Tami Murray, president of Oxford County Pride.

Murray explained that a previous motion tabled by Stubbs is what led to this whole debacle. A few months ago, Stubbs proposed that Pride flags and banners be flown downtown and that June be proclaimed as Pride Month in Norwich. Scholten’s flag ban was only later brought forward as a counter-motion.

Leading up to Tuesday’s council meeting, Scholten’s motion called for “only the three official government flags,” and “only banners related to promotion of downtown businesses or for downtown beautification… exclud[ing] Progress and Pride banners,” to be permitted on Township property, according to the meeting agenda.

During the meeting, Mayor Palmer read the motion - but it no longer explicitly mentioned Pride and Progress symbols as offenses to the proposed bylaw. Stubb alleged that the wording was changed just before the council meeting, saying “not only is that out of order, it’s done in bad faith.”

“This entire situation right now is sneaky. It’s demeaning. It’s non-transparent. It’s unethical. It goes further beyond our code of conduct as councilors,” said Stubbs.

Council ultimately voted on the amended motion, with three out of five voting in favor of the ban. Murray said that just last year, council unanimously voted to display Pride flags and banners at a Business Improvement Areas meeting.

“Interesting that in the interim of homophobic violence, rhetoric, and pressure from I believe a religious institution, three of those council members have now changed their mind,” Murray said.

Norwich, a rural town of about 11,000, has been at the centre of controversy since May of last year, when Pride flags were vandalized and stolen. Two people from Tillsonburg were later charged in connection to the incident. One of them, a 47-year-old man, attended a Norwich council meeting and went on a 30 minute anti-LGBTQ+ rant, comparing Pride initiatives to something out of Nazi Germany. In December, charges against the accused were dropped.

“Mr. Dey was let off of his charges, now we have a council that has no interest in diversity, inclusion, and equity, they have no interest in supporting the 2SLGTB community,” said Murray.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Norwich town council also voted against forming a DEI committee - which has been in discussion since the fall. They also voted against proclaiming June as Pride Month.

“I’m pretty sure that violence is going to increase because there’s absolutely no consequence for being a homophobe and being discriminatory in Norwich, Ontario,” Murray added.

Stubbs addressed the community members who attended Tuesday’s meeting, telling them, “I see you, I hear you, you are loved, you are worthy of safety and inclusion in our town, and I am embarrassed you’re not getting it tonight. I am so sorry.”

The next step, Murray says, is to appeal to the Ontario Human Rights Commission on behalf of *2SLGTBQIA+ people and their allies.

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