Waters: Inclusion now a watchword at Kelowna city hall

The city has pushed hard in the last few years to fight the stereo-type—held by some—that Kelowna is an intolerant place.

Alistair Waters

Back when it was cool to smoke, and to smoking cigarettes was advised on television, one famous tobacco company advertisement proclaimed “You’ve come a long way, baby,” in its sexist attempt to lure females to their brand.

The phrase parlayed its way into the common lexicon and is now often used to highlight changing times.

Well, the phrase is certainly apt for Kelowna these days—as it relates to a myriad of aspects. The city is growing up, figuratively and literally, as well as physically and socially, and much of that change is being driven by city hall.

Sure, there are still many small town and ultra conservative attitudes held and expressed by some here, but the Kelowna of 2016 is a very different place than it was 20 years ago.

For a person familiar with this city in the early ’90s—or even more starkly, the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s—returning here after years away, Kelowna looks very different.

But there’s something else, something some feel is even more important—acceptance. (I don’t use the word tolerance here, as that would indicate just putting up with others and other people’s views.)

While Kelowna’s current mayor is getting plenty of attention for pushing inclusiveness, he stands on the shoulders of his two predecessors, who together with their councils paved the way for change.

Some may find that odd given that his immediate predecessor, Walter Gray, was the man whose actions during his first stint in office in the late ’90s concerning a proclamation for the then-named Gay Pride Day were so controversial. It gave the city a black eye. But Gray learned from his mistake and during his second stint in office helped encourage local Pride celebrations. Before that, the socially-minded mayor, Sharon Shepherd, was a lightening rod for social issues, and made them a cornerstone of city policy, much to the chagrin of some.

Fast forward to today and Colin Basran, much younger than his predecessors, and a man who made it clear from his election night victory speech that the word inclusion would not just be lip service at city hall.

But that message has not been met with support in all quarters.

An upset resident who took umbrage at the city painting a rainbow-coloured crosswalk downtown called Basran “Mayor Sugarplum,” meaning it as an insult. But Basran ran with it, the local Pride society organized last weekend’s Sugarplum Ball and asked Basran to host it—in drag.

Basran accepted—although the initial description of how he’d appear, “transformed in drag,” turned out to be simply face makeup and a sparkly bow tie, not the full dress, wig and makeup of others asked to participate.

Prior to the event, the story of Basran’s plan to host the ball in drag made national news, so his lack of female attire may have disappointed some. But the message was clear—the city supports its LGBTQ community.

There have been plenty of other examples of the city’s support for diversity and inclusion as well—a large menorah in Stuart Park during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, council participation in the annual Sikh Vaisakhi and Muslim Ramadan celebrations, as well as support for local Chinese celebrations.

Like any journey, it just takes one step to start. Kelowna’s initial steps have set it off down a road few may have envisioned—but many hoped for—all those years ago.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Kelowna Capital News.