The provincial government and Winnipeg police say they’ve got a security plan to prevent a repeat of last year’s Canada Day protests in which the massive Queen Victoria statue in front of the legislature was pulled down and destroyed.
The legislature has been the scene of emotionally charged gatherings for more than two years — from the large, peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in 2020; to the July 1, 2021, vandalism by Indigenous protesters that was sparked by the discovery of potential unmarked graves at Indian Residential School sites; to opponents of pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates who occupied Memorial Boulevard for more than three weeks in February.
Security has restricted vehicle access on the grounds of the legislature. The seasonal rush of graduates and wedding parties that want to take photos there, for instance, are required to park away from the property and walk across the expansive lawn in long gowns and high heels. Recently, however, one select group has been allowed to park four of their vehicles in a prime location.
One car covered in decals — "Freedom 2022", "We’ve Been Lied To" and "hold the line" — lists a "COVID vaccine victims" website. Its driver, who was sitting in the vehicle Tuesday, said he has a right to park there and told a Free Press reporter to stop harassing him.
A late-model van conversion with "Lose your head" and "We’re all mad here" parks beside it near a government protective services vehicle. The officer inside it checks that all vehicles accessing the legislature grounds have business on the property.
The vehicles are part of a small but growing group of people associated with the weeks-long "freedom convoy" occupation of Memorial Boulevard in February who set up a teepee in front of the legislature more than a week ago.
The group that identified itself on a Facebook page as a Manitoba"freedom convoy fam" last winter changed its handle to "It Takes a Village" and has requested donations of ice cream, coolers, cribbage boards, propane tanks, tents, tarps, firewood and supplies for a camp kitchen. On Tuesday, portable toilets were delivered and set up on both sides of Broadway and Memorial Boulevard.
In a video posted on the group’s Facebook page, a man who goes by "Silent Wolf" said most of the people who join the demonstration are not Indigenous. He said the group is trying to bring spirit back into the world.
"Our laws are real, the laws that we’re abiding to are not real, and they know it. And we’re trying to get them to admit it," he said, pointing to the legislature. Many of the videos on the group’s Facebook page promote conspiracy theories, including one that supply-chain disruptions are part of a co-ordinated global scheme.
No one in the group in front of the main entrance to the legislative building was willing to comment this week about their purpose or how long they plan to occupy the site. Like the "freedom convoy" protesters in February, they condemned news reporters, saying they can’t be trusted, and turned their video-recording devices on them.
"It doesn’t feel very good, does it?" one of the "It Takes A Village" people said Tuesday, to the shrug of a reporter who said being recorded on an assignment is just part of the job.
Two of the occupants ordered the Free Press to leave what they said was their "sacred property" and "private lawn" in front of the legislature.
Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen who is responsible for security at the legislature, was not made available for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. His office did not respond when asked why the Progressive Conservative government is giving the rebranded "freedom convoy" protesters parking privileges.
"My understanding is that this is a purely strategic move," said Felix Mathieu, a political studies professor at the University of Winnipeg.
"As the government and (Premier Heather) Stefanson, in particular, are hitting rock bottom in polls, and a byelection is coming in Kirkfield Park by the end of the year, it seems that the PCs are reaching out to the membership that had been attracted by Shelly Glover during the last leadership race," Mathieu said. The former police officer — who questioned vaccine restrictions — came within a percentage point of becoming Tory party leader.
"This is not the first time the government is showing more than tolerance towards the ‘freedom convoy’ protesters and other similar groups, but this time it could potentially backfire," he said. "As parking on the legislative grounds is prohibited in general but allowed for this group, opposition parties and citizens more broadly will call for an unfair treatment," said Mathieu.
“As parking on the legislative grounds is prohibited in general but allowed for this group, opposition parties and citizens more broadly will call for an unfair treatment.” – Felix Mathieu
As for Canada Day security on the grounds, a spokesperson for Manitoba Justice issued a statement confirming security plans are in place for the long weekend.
"As with all security matters, it would be inappropriate to discuss specifics in order to protect the integrity of the operations."
Winnipeg police were tight-lipped about plans for Canada Day.
"While we have resources and plans in place to manage events occurring on July 1, the specifics of the police operations are not something we release to the public," a spokeswoman said.
— with files from Danielle DaSilva
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.