Despite ban on municipal property, Pride flags fly at Norwich school, businesses, homes

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NORWICH – Their township banned flying Pride flags on municipal turf, but that hasn’t stopped families, businesses and the local school here from flying their own.

The rainbow flag – a universal symbol of LGBT inclusion – flew high over Emily Stowe elementary school in Norwich Township on Wednesday, joining hundreds of Southwestern Ontario schools to mark international day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

Grade 5 pupil Kiera Harris was among several pupils dressed to celebrate the day, donning head-to-toe rainbow colours and a “Love is Love” pin and hat.

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The 10-year-old said she wore the outfit to show support for the LGBT community. “Because everyone should be included,” she said.

“I've just brought her up knowing that everybody is equal,” said Melissa Harris, a student supervisor at the school who’s lived in Norwich for 13 years.

“She's been passionate about that ever since she was a kid. Especially with everything going on in this township.”

Norwich council has come under fire for restricting flag-flying on township property to government banners, effectively banning Pride flags, and rejecting one politician’s bid to declare June as Pride Month.

The original council motion to ban non-government flags at first explicitly cited the Pride flag before that was changed to ban all special banners. The move has triggered a human rights complaint and widespread public criticism, including a social agency that helps kids — Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oxford County — that’s offered to return a small grant from the township in protest.

Thames Valley District school board raised the Pride flag at all 161 of its schools on Wednesday, including at Emily Stowe elementary school, and will do the same in June for Pride Month.

“We'll be here today to help support the inclusive messaging,” Dennis Wright, the board’s superintendent of safe schools and well-being, said standing outside the school in Norwich.

While the messaging is critical for the kids, it’s equally important for staff, he said.

“We have over 10,000 employees, many of them identify with the LGBTQ-plus community. We need to make sure that everybody's identities are centred and affirmed … There’s just no room for exclusionary practices.”

Thames Valley schools have extra Pride flags on standby in case any are stolen or vandalized.

“There are occasions where they're damaged or unfortunately vandalized, so we’re always prepared to put one back up if someone chooses to do something like that,” Wright said.

Norwich became a flashpoint last year when several Pride flags there were stolen and vandalized.

A Tillsonburg business owner, Jake Dey, was charged with theft in connection to the stolen flags. Soon after, he addressed council in a 30-minute speech in which he likened the Pride flag to something out of Nazi Germany. The charge against him was withdrawn in December.

Several residents and businesses since have rallied to promote inclusivity in the community, flying Pride flags and mounting signs denouncing hate on their properties.

Chris Takacs of the Norwich Residents for Love and Acceptance group said some of its members sold nearly $1,000 in window stickers and donated the money to Oxford County Pride.

His group regularly meets to discuss how to make Norwich residents feel safer, including hosting events to “build a little bit more community between people, so that people who might not feel like they have a support system can start to find one,” he said.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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