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When Neutrality Isn’t as It Seems

When is a thing, not a thing?


In local government, and probably in other orders of government, the idea of neutrality depends heavily on which side you’re on.


There have been an increasing number of citizen activist groups springing up recently, often under the guise of ‘neutrality’ or ‘freedom’. Often, the real reason for requests coming from these groups isn’t about either neutrality or freedom. Commonly, the requests are highly politically charged, but they are framed in a way that makes them look soft and fuzzy upon a cursory review.


Perhaps the biggest request for municipal ‘neutrality’ these days is the painting of pride colours on sidewalks or the flying of related flags from municipal flagpoles. Local government councils have chosen to do these things to bring focus to marginalized groups, but this has upset others in their communities and beyond—for a variety of different religious or social reasons.


Since time immemorial, councils and communities have participated in awareness for campaigns around cancer, or literacy, or veterans, or any number of worthwhile causes in their communities. None of these causes have anything to do with local government per se, but all of them are important to the wholeness of communities.


Those offended by the pride crosswalks often demand' neutrality' based on the notion that local governments need to stop promoting one group or another or one cause or another because the role of government is to provide basic services and programs, and that’s all it’s supposed to do. This is really aimed at pride groups, but it is thinly veiled in seemingly altruistic terms.


Ask these same people whether they’d be ok with the cancer society flying a flag at city hall, or whether it’s ok that the local library promotes literacy and reading on street banners, or that the Rotary Club be allowed to raise community funds on the civic property, and there’s relatively little backlash. None of these groups are strictly neutral, but they are somehow more acceptable.


In some communities, Westlock Alberta for example, this ridiculousness has gone as far as groups of ‘concerned citizens’ generating a petition to remove and ban the pride colours from sidewalks, or to restrict municipal poles from flying any flag but national, provincial, and local flags.


The Westlock petition didn’t say this of course, it read that town council “make a bylaw ensuring that crosswalks and flags on public property remain neutral.” Just to be sure that onlookers see this group of benevolent citizens as absolutely neutral, the group behind the petition called itself ‘Westlock Neutrality: restoring equality and neutrality to our public places.’ Well, that sounds quite benign.


In Westlock’s case, the petition garnered enough signatures that town council was forced to pass a related bylaw. In doing so, the town became either a laughingstock or a whipping boy, depending on the viewer’s perspective.


This really had nothing to do with Westlock itself, and it really had nothing to do with neutrality.


In Westlock and other places with similar issues, the unanticipated consequence is that neutrality also removes the ability of the Cancer Society, the library, and the Rotary Club to do good in their communities. These groups get inadvertently caught up in the same net as all other non-government entities.


We are all poorer for this decision to create groups of ‘us and them’ rather than to create a whole community that attracts everyone and makes them feel welcome.


As a municipal leader, what do you think when these types of topics raise their head in your own community?


As always, you can reach me at ian@strategicsteps.ca

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