Salt Spring Island police are investigating an act of vandalism after one of the community’s gay Pride flags was torched last week.
Sgt George Jenkins, of the Salt Spring RCMP confirms that a file has been opened regarding the Sept 1st incident.
Calling the incident a seemingly “isolated issue,” Jenkins suspects the vandalism is linked to witness accounts of an intoxicated local man “staggering up the road with a jerrycan.”
“We don’t think it’s a hate crime,” says Jenkins, but notes that vandalism is “not out of the ordinary,” on the Island.
But Island residents are shocked over the incident that took place one week before Salt Spring’s 9th annual Gay Pride Festival.
“We’re pretty upset,” said Bill Turner, president of Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island (GLOSSI), the local organizing body behind the Pride Festival.
Along with the burned flag, GLOSSI says two Pride posters were also vandalized recently with the words, “This is ugly stuff,” scribbled on them.
“Salt Spring isn’t always known as a safe haven for gay people, but it’s probably better than most [smaller] communities,” Turner says.
Salt Spring has a population of approximately 10,500, and Turner says that allies on the Island make up approximately 90 percent of Pride Festival participants each year.
One of those allies, 73 year-old Helen Hinchliff, came across the burnt rainbow flag remains as she was on her way to church Sept 1, and didn't want to leave them lying in the street.
“I simply couldn’t walk by. I just couldn’t do it," she says. "I wanted something positive to come out of it.”
Hinchliff took what remained of the burnt flag and, with the help of some members of her United Church group and seniors at the Complex Care Faculty where she volunteers, crafted a banner depicting a rising, rainbow-clad phoenix.
Hinchliff marched with the banner in the Island's Pride parade Sept 7.
“I’ve always been very aware of discrimination,” says Hinchliff, who at one time served on the US Commission on Civil Rights. “I have a lot of gay friends on the Island and this is my gift in return."
Hinchliff also says that Russia’s anti-gay policies and the controversy around them in the leadup to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games has reinforced her support of gay rights.
“It’s made me aware of how truly far we in Canada have come,” she adds. Despite the incident, Hinchliff says Salt Spring is an accepting community. “We have a vibrant gay community on the Island,” she said.
“We believe it is one person who’s really unhappy with our vibe,” Deirdre Rowland, Pride co-chair of GLOSSI, told Xtra. "We [GLOSSI] have achieved so much in terms of what we’re doing here," she says, adding that there's never been an incident like a flag burning before.
“We’ve been accepted and we’ve had tremendous amount of support from our allies and they are also shocked," Rowland adds.
This year GLOSSI say they have become bolder with their advertising by putting up posters adorned with a drag queen. One of the Island sidewalks was also painted in rainbow colours for this year’s Pride.
“We’re really out there this year. We’re bigger and bolder and better,” Rowland says. But GLOSSI members also suspect that this year's more overtly queer theme, “Let’s Camp It UP,” may have contributed to the vandalism.
“I think that the theme is great, but the kind of in-your-face camp theme could bring out the homophobes and goad them a bit,” says Turner, who admits that he was concerned.
“We’re going to keep our ears open and be very watchful; we’re not going to let this defeat us,” he adds.
Local RCMP say the incident has made them more sensitive to the issue and they plan to be on higher alert.
This year’s Pride celebrations began Sept 5 and run until Sept 8.