Hundreds marched through downtown Calgary on Saturday to protest against mandated masks and other public health measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the same day record highs in new cases and hospitalizations were reported in the province.
The protests, or “Walk for Freedom,” have been a weekly occurrence in the city and across the country for months, but Saturday was the first since the province’s 10-person limit on outdoor gatherings was announced on Tuesday.
“To see that there is a group of people in the Canadian population that is against masking, and to say that it infringes on their freedom, is taking the word out of context — it’s actually an insult on all those civil rights heroes who fought for freedom,” said Dr. Sajjad Fazel, a public health researcher at the University of Calgary.
“When we look at the word freedom, we’re talking about when people’s rights are taken away … you’re not allowed to drink and drive without any consequences, right? Everything has a consequence … when it’s for the public good, the scenario changes.”
Fazel is part of a team of researchers and scientists studying COVID-19 misinformation to provide recommendations as to how it can be addressed.
Some signs at Saturday’s protest expressed misinformation, saying vaccines can alter DNA or that masks cause bacterial or fungal infections. Others expressed economic concerns, or anger at the federal or provincial government. Members of at least two far-right or white supremacist groups were also seen in attendance.
Fazel said anti-mask protests show the need for clearer public health messaging — and he said empathy is an important tool when having these conversations about science and health.
He suggests more conversation can help people understand the roots behind concerns, whether it’s a small business owner worried about their livelihood or someone with anti-government sentiment frustrated by mixed messages.
“Misinformation isn’t just lies, it’s a mix of truth and lies mixed up together,” Fazel said. “One thing that I always tell people is don’t look at what one particular doctor, scientist, researcher sees, but look at what the overall body of science and literature is.”
One of those in attendance at Saturday’s protest, lawyer Doris Reimer, said she was there to make sure Canadians know what their rights are.
“They’re violating our human rights over and over and over again — they’re bombarding us with mandates left right and centre, and it’s unbelievable,” Reimer said.
Reimer said she doesn’t know what the province’s latest enforcement measures include, but said the restrictions are pitting families against each other.
The new restrictions include a ban on indoor social gatherings, limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people and moving Grades 7-12 students to online learning until winter break.
Most businesses can remain open, subject to capacity rules, and masks are mandatory inside workplaces in Calgary and Edmonton.
Protester Chris Haskett said he’s concerned the government could use a heavy-handed approach to fines as an income source. Those who break the rules could be subject to a $1,000 fine and up to $100,000 through the courts.
“I don’t see the value in condemning people and publicly shaming them and fining them for expressing our opinions,” Haskett said.
No protesters ticketed
No tickets were handed out at Saturday’s protest, but police say they are considering a plan for strategic enforcement going forward.
In Ontario on Thursday, two police services announced charges related to anti-mask “freedom” rallies.
Haskett said he’s concerned with a lack of transparency and inconsistency in messaging.
That’s something Fazel also said has been a problem.
“I think the government, really both provincial and federal, need to invest heavily on tailored and targeted public health messages,” he said.
“I’m sorry to say this, but it doesn’t help to have politicians and political leaders who aren’t adhering to public health recommendations, who aren’t supporting public health recommendations fully … that further steels people’s belief in [misinformation].”
Beyond conversation, Fazel said enforcement of restrictions also remains an important tool —especially as the second wave builds.
“Definitely having people with no masks congregating on the streets doesn’t help anybody. In fact, it does lead to outbreaks and cases increasing,” Fazel said.
“It’s just like when somebody is drunk driving, there [are] some consequences. And I believe there need to be consequences for breaking public health orders, especially at this scale.
Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Friday that police have independence to make some determinations as to how to enforce health measures, but that he expects those who violate health measures will be held accountable.