by Dara Hill
Merritt city council may have rejected a proposed rainbow crosswalk, but that’s not stopping local businesses from showing their true colours.
Michelle Loughery — the artist behind the murals depicting country stars in town — was one of many to express her disappointment in city council’s decision to deny the painting of a crosswalk by local students.
“I feel sad that there wasn’t a longer conversation with the youth. They went to their leaders and showed leadership—they should have been rewarded for that,” she said.
Loughery noted that her mural project of country stars in Merritt, which focused on providing at-risk indigenous youth with trades skills while creating public art for the community, was a success because people welcomed it with open arms.
“It’s unfortunate that [the openness] didn’t stick. And the rainbow crosswalk says that.”
John Allison, co-owner of Coldwater Hotel, acknowledged the desire of the youth to have a symbol of tolerance and acceptance.
“There were people that were feeling left out or bullied and we just felt ‘you know, there’s a voice here that’s not being heard and it’s the voice of our youth’,” he said.
With the stroke of a paintbrush, businesses take action
Several businesses have shown their support for the youth who proposed the crosswalk, and things are starting to look a little more colourful around town.
John Allison and his wife Marla Reed offered their parking lot next to the Coldwater Hotel as a place to paint a pride-inspired rainbow. He said the students were “all for it.”
“We got the paint and everything for them and they came down on Sunday — the kids and the teachers and the pride club — it was a good mix of people that came out,” he said.
“For the most part, the response has been very positive. We’ve had some people say that they’re never going to do business here again, but you’re going to have that. At the same time there’s been a lot of people that have been really supportive,” Allison said.
“The way we look at it, we just want to show that we support the kids and what they’re trying to say. A little colour in town is good, and everybody is welcome here,” he added.
Loughery said she’s eager to help the students in any way she can. She has offered to assist with painting, fundraising, reaching out to celebrities, or anything else they might need.
“I don’t care how I help, I’ll do whatever I can,” she said.
“It’s important to be proud of who you are, and it’s important to be happy with who you are” – John Allison
Kerstin Auer — the face behind Merritt small business centre — is responsible for the rainbow stickers scattered around town.
Once she heard about city council’s decision regarding the proposed rainbow crosswalk, Auer took initiative and created 1000 pride stickers to spread a message of inclusivity around town.
She has given out approximately 250 to 400 of the stickers herself, and the rest are being distributed by Brambles Bakery and Cafe. The stickers are free for anyone who wants to show that Merritt is an open-minded, inclusive community that welcomes diversity, she said.
Sarah Molnar, one of the owners of Brambles, noted that the stickers have been a a big success at the bakery.
“They’ve been flying out of here. We’ve had people come just to get stickers because they knew they were here,” she said.
Brambles also whipped up some feedback for city council in the form of rainbow-coloured cookies and a letter to the mayor and city council. The message shared their disappointment with the council’s decision, as well as their hopes that the council would reconsider.
They haven’t received a response, but feedback from the community has been largely positive, Molnar said.
“We’ve seen way more support than anything,” she said.
Travis Fehr, owner of Breathe Bikes, said showing support for the proposed rainbow sidewalk lets people know the kind of place Merritt is.
“We’re an inclusive community and we want to make sure that nobody is excluded. That’s the message we’re sending here,” he said.
Allison said there is a desire to show inclusivity in town, and many businesses and community members are following suit.
“This is to let everybody know that they are welcome. It’s important to be proud of who you are, and it’s important to be happy with who you are,” Allison said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts popping up all over town,” he added.
Gold at the end of the rainbow?
Despite the frustration felt by these businesses, some say things are looking quite a bit brighter.
Fehr explained there were a lot of negative messages resulting from the students’ original proposal, however the attitude has shifted since.
“For instance with the Coldwater and other businesses showing their support, I think the community has turned that into a positive thing,” Auer said.
He added that all the feedback he’s received has been positive.
“All the little gestures go a long way. We want our kids to know that Merritt is an okay place to grow up” – Sarah Molnar
Allison explained their intention with raising a pride flag and painting rainbow parking stalls was simply to infuse positivity into the conversation.
“We didn’t want to do this to battle the city. There’s just so much negativity around their decision to reject it twice, we just wanted to add a positive note,” he said.
He reported that some feel they have defaced the Canadian flag, but he insists that he means no disrespect.
“We’ve had the Canadian national flag up on top of the roof for years and we’re going to continue to do so, but for right now we’ve just felt we’re going to show support for the part of the community that feels their voices aren’t being heard,” said.
“We’re doing this to bring everyone together a little bit, to have some more understanding,” he added.
Brick by brick, citizens of Merritt hope to build a more inclusive future
Pointing to the Coldwater Hotel’s rainbow flag and parking stalls, as well as Brambles’ rainbow cookies as examples, Loughery stressed the importance of small acts of solidarity.
“When people show their small gestures, those gestures are like little bricks that build people up,” she said.
“Those little bricks are sometime really hard to show in a small town because you’re so afraid of being bullied, you’re so afraid of the negativity,” Loughery added.
“All the little gestures go a long way. We want our kids to know that Merritt is an okay place to grow up,” Molnar said.
Moving forward, Loughery will wait on standby for students to let her know how she can help with their vision. In the meantime, she urged the public to keep the conversation going.
“Conversation is what changes everything,” she said.