Oxford County Pride launches human rights complaint after Norwich, Ont., bans interest group flags

The head of a Pride committee in southwestern Ontario has filed a human rights complaint against the township of Norwich over its new ban on flying interest group flags on civic property and refusal to recognize June as Pride month.

'People from marginalized communities are feeling hurt,' group's head says after 3-2 council vote

Pride flag hanging

The head of a southwestern Ontario Pride committee has filed a human rights complaint against the township of Norwich, charging its ban on flying interest group flags on its property and refusal to recognize June as Pride month amount to discrimination.

Tammy Murray, president of Oxford County Pride, said she launched the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) complaint against the township, Mayor Jim Palmer, and Councillors John Scholten and Adrian Couwenberg. These three members of the five-person council voted Tuesday in favour of only flying civic flags on township property and against recognizing Pride month.

"I don't think I've been given a choice," Murray said about turning to the OHRC. "People from marginalized communities are feeling hurt, revictimized, excluded, and they don't feel like their voices are being heard."

Murray said Oxford Pride is seeking:

  • A formal written and verbal apology from Norwich township officials in council chambers.
  • A removal of the Pride banner ban.
  • For the township to paint a rainbow crosswalk.
  • $50,000 in damages.

At this week's council meeting, members voted 3-2 to only fly Canadian, provincial and municipal flags. The only other banners allowed to be installed on township streetlight poles are ones promoting downtown businesses or for downtown beautification.

The initial bylaw, put forth by Scholten in March, wanted only government flags to be flown. Last week, it was amended to ban all flags by interest groups, including the Progress Pride flag. At the council meeting, the motion was amended again with removal of the words "Progress Pride flags."

The motion followed a series of thefts and vandalism of Pride flags last summer, after the township approved its business improvement association to fly such flags.

Murray initially filed the OHRC complaint earlier this week, but says she'll amend it to include mention of $50,000 in damages.

Scholten wouldn't comment except to say he was made aware of the human rights complaint through CBC's phone call. Palmer and Couwenberg have not yet responded to CBC's request for comment.

According to Toronto-based human rights lawyer Raj Anand, Murray's complaint would have to show that the LGBTQ+ community in Norwich is being treated differently, either intentionally or by the effect on them by an apparently neutral bylaw.

'Some kind of compromise is required': lawyer

Scholten's reasoning was that civic flags best represent all groups of people and allow everyone to co-exist in harmony, regardless of their identity or beliefs. He said accommodating Pride flags will only inspire other communities to request their own.

Anand, former chief commissioner of the OHRC, said the township's decision could be a violation of the provincial human rights code, even if it doesn't explicitly exclude a certain group.

"By banning all flags of interest groups as a means of saying, 'We don't allow flags of any interest group and therefore you're not being discriminated against,' is more of a subtle human rights discrimination argument, but the municipality can still be found to have breached the human rights code," Anand said.

"I do understand that flying multiple different flags can be time consuming and costly to staff within townships, but in lieu of that, they could've developed a [rainbow] crosswalk or some compromise," Murray said.

A municipality isn't obligated to meet every request, but does have to consider, discuss and look at alternatives and costs, Anand said.

"If a municipality cannot meet a group's request due to undue hardship, meaning it's too costly or creates a health and safety problem, then it's required to consider another way to advance the equality interest of that group — some kind of compromise is required," he said.

Anand said it would be difficult for the township to claim undue hardship because requests for flags and banners are made all the time.

In 1995, London faced similar human rights case

Nearly two decades ago, the City of London, west of Norwich, faced a similar situation as the township, and was found to have violated the Ontario Human Rights Code.

In 1995, Diane Haskett, London's mayor at the time, refused to proclaim Pride and would not fly the rainbow flag at city hall, prompting the Homophile Association of London (HALO) to file a complaint against Haskett and the city.

Two years later, the OHRC ruled in favour of HALO and fined the mayor and city $5,000 each. In 2018, Mayor Matt Brown formally apologized to the LGBTQ+ on behalf of the city in acknowledging the discrimination.

Pat Shanahan, who was a witness at the OHRC hearing involving London, said the Norwich situation is giving him flashbacks.

"First of all, the town had created the precedent of flying these flags, so they had provided that service in the past," he said. "We have to remember that these are about minority rights. It's always easy to do the popular thing but it's harder to do the right thing."

Murray believes a large portion of the LGBTQ+ community doesn't feel safe in Norwich, and that's why she hopes council can do right by those community members.


Isha Bhargava


Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at isha.bhargava@cbc.ca

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