By Steve Hubrecht

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Summer break was over, and school back in earlier this week. Students heading to J.A. Laird elementary school were greeted with a freshly re-painted rainbow crosswalk across 13th Avenue. Unfortunately the crosswalk was also covered with skidded tire marks, after mischief makers deliberately did burnouts atop the rainbow stripes the weekend before school started. The move left some local residents wondering if the burnouts were done as intentional vandalism by individuals opposed to the rainbow crosswalk’s message of Pride, diversity and inclusivity.

The rainbow crosswalk at the T-intersection of 13th Avenue and 13th Street was first advocated for and then painted (with support from district staff) by Laird students back in 2019, with the intent of creating a symbol of welcome and Pride in the community. The paint for the crosswalk, like most road paint,  fades quite quickly, with the result that each year the students have been back out painting the colourful stripes across the road.

This year it was the district of Invermere, rather than students, that repainted the rainbow crosswalk, as part of ongoing sewer and water upgrades along 13th Avenue. Debate on whether to use longer-lasting thermoplastic paint or normal tinted road paint was a hot topic of discussion at last week’s Invermere council meeting, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, just as crews re-paved the section of 13th Avenue in front of the school. At the last moment, the district opted for normal tinted road paint, putting the new stripes down just prior to the Labour Day long weekend on Thursday, Sept. 1 and Friday, Sept 2. 

“We were able to get the paint we needed,” said Invermere director of public works and operations Angela McLean, alluding to how an ongoing shortage of some paint colours could have foiled district plans. “We wanted to get something in place before school started. It was important for us to do that.”

But what should have been a bright and vibrant symbol of welcome was defaced with multiple long black skid marks by the time Laird opened its doors on Tuesday, Sept. 6. 

The damage was done on Saturday, Sept. 3 and Sunday, Sept. 4, said a concerned resident who lives within eyesight (and earshot) of the crosswalk, and who witnessed the burnouts.

“I was on the porch when the first event occurred. It was Saturday night, about 7:30 p.m. A blue truck drove right to the Pride sidewalk, did some burnouts and then roared away,” the resident told the Pioneer. “Then at 11:30 p.m. they came back and did it again.”

The resident’s partner was home the next day, on Sunday afternoon, when another vehicle — this time a white truck — came and did some burnouts. Several more occurrences followed.

“It total there were at least five burnouts, done by at least two different trucks,” said the resident, questioning whether the acts were done as a purposeful anti-Pride statement.

“I think the burnouts were disgusting, personally,” said the resident.

A similar incident earlier this summer in Saskatoon was investigated as a hate crime. Burnouts or other intentional defacing of rainbow crosswalks in recent years in Whitehorse (Yukon), Lethbridge, and West Vancouver were also treated as potential hate crimes.

Columbia Valley RCMP sergeant Darren Kakuno told the Pioneer on Tuesday, Sept. 6 that police not received any official reports about the burnouts in Invermere, although he noted that the local RCMP’s office was not open during the weekend to receive any complaints then.

“If there is willful damage to the crosswalk, it may be investigated as a hate crime to determine the motivation,” said Kakuno. “But it would be necessary to prove this offence was motivated by hate, bias or prejudice to an identifiable group.”

Even if it is not a hate crime, it could qualify as a number of other offences, ranging from a motor vehicle infraction up to criminal charges of mischief to property, explained Kakuno, urging anybody who witnesses burnouts or other damage to the crosswalk to report it immediately to the local RCMP.

McLean told the Pioneer the district had also not had any official complaints (as of Tuesday, Sep. 6), although she said she too had noticed the skid marks. She noted that the fresh tinted road paint “is a particularly slippery surface, so it is easier to leave marks there than on regular asphalt.”

Several Invermere council members and district staff highlighted the symbolic importance of the rainbow crosswalk during the Aug. 30 council meeting. 

During that meeting, council talked at length about potentially using thermoplastic paint to re-do the crosswalk. The normal road paint lasts a few months before fading. Thermoplastic painting lasts three to seven years (depending on factors such as weather and climate conditions), but comes with a hefty price tag of $31,000. The normal paint job costs $1,500. 

Councillor Greg Anderson and Invermere chief administrative officer Andrew Young each separately opined that there is value in the community seeing the students, council members and other volunteers out painting the rainbow each year. “It sends a signal within the community. It becomes something that is embodied and transmitted within the community,” said Young.

Other councillors countered with different views. Councillor Kayja Becker emphasized her background working with youth, saying “I think they would actually be heartened to see the district take the lead on it.”

Council ultimately left the matter undecided, and while Invermere staff chose to paint the crosswalk with normal road paint in order finish it in time for school, the door remains open for the rainbow to get done in thermoplastic paint (or some other alternative means) in the future.  “We’ll see how the paint fares,” said McLean.