MORDEN/WINKLER — Brandon Burley was barbecuing burgers with his seven-year-old son earlier this month, when several people blasting air horns pulled up unannounced outside of his family's home.
One of the drivers had a message for the Morden mayor, who has been an outspoken critic of COVID-19 deniers and the anti-lockdown movement, which has taken hold in the southern Manitoba community.
"The question that was asked was, ‘Are you wanting to die or what?’... I don't know, with some reflection, whether they were intending to indicate that it was the vaccine that was going to kill us, or I was killing people," he said.
"But in that moment, all I thought was, this was a threat. And I didn't make any sense of it — my son certainly didn't at seven years old, my kids were inside bawling their eyes out."
It was the final straw for the 39-year-old father of four who, for months, has watched the crusade create a divide in the city he represents. He said he "saw red" and lashed out at the group, something he's not proud of.
But he'd had enough.
"I have elderly neighbours," Burley said. "One of them is extremely sick, and (the air-horn blasters) just went through and didn't care. I tried to communicate to one of them that I had a very sick neighbour, and an elderly one, they said, ‘good.' They weren't going to be reasoned with."
Burley knows first-hand that COVID-19 is real.
Last November, he tested positive for the virus. Today, he is still dealing with its "miserable" effects.
It took over a month before he was able to climb a flight of stairs without having to stop to catch his breath. He still can’t run a block without getting winded, and much of the food he once enjoyed now has a sulphuric odour and taste.
Burley's experience with the virus moved him to write a public letter in December, in response to RM of La Broquerie Reeve Lewis Weiss, who said publicly that the virus was a hoax orchestrated by people in power. Morden and the RM of La Broquerie are both in Manitoba's Southern Health region, where protests against pandemic lockdowns have been frequent.
"This baseless rhetoric (and indeed a substantial amount of discord, antagonism and hatred) has been emboldened in your region and mine by this misinformation, replacing the charity, goodwill and fidelity, which were some of the few lights in the darkness at the outset of this pandemic declaration," Burley wrote.
Since then, Burley says he's been targeted because of his views — as evidenced by the incident outside of his home.
After a conversation with Morden's police chief, Burley said he was advised there was little that could be done to find the people involved and establish intent. That, along with concerns that it would bring further notoriety to the troublemakers, convinced him not to file a police report.
And while he said the majority of his constituents share his values, he admits it hasn't been easy coming to terms with the views of some in the community.
His sister has attended anti-lockdown rallies.
"The alienation tends to come more from the people I know, and I would have considered and do consider good friends, who now would like nothing to do with me over this position," he said.
"And that's a really difficult thing to realize."
But he won't be silenced.
"We refuse to be intimidated into stupidity. And I use the word "stupid" in the most technical sense, that it's ignorance, and believing things that just are not accurate or factual."
"Freedom rallies" have become a regular fixture in Morden and neighbouring Winkler during the pandemic, attracting more than 100 people at some events. Demonstrators with signs reading, "Away with masks" and "Stop the lockdown" have become common sights in communities in the region.
The demonstrators oppose pandemic-related restrictions and lockdowns, arguing they are more harmful than COVID-19. Some deny the virus exists. Others assert restrictions are a violation of their freedoms and human rights.
Burley believes a rise in Trumpism as a political ideology in southern Manitoba, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are behind the protests.
Whatever the reasons may be, the movement is creating a schism in the community, said one Winkler educator who reached out to the Free Press over frustration with the anti-mask movement. He requested anonymity because of fears he'll be targeted both personally and professionally.
"I don't know what's going to get these people to stop because, even between the freedom rallies, you will see vehicles... driving around town... so it's not just at the rally," the educator said. "It's happening constantly."
“When we talk about going shopping, many people will say, ‘I will not go then, I will not go then, I will not go then, I try to go early in the morning and hopefully I can avoid these people,’” – Winkler educator
Anti-lockdown protests have become a threatening presence, he said, noting public spaces, including big-box stores, have become battlegrounds between weary employees and anti-lockdown protesters.
"When we talk about going shopping, many people will say, ‘I will not go then, I will not go then, I will not go then, I try to go early in the morning and hopefully I can avoid these people,’" he said. "And I'm going, who's in charge now? Who's really free?"
At Winkler’s Superstore on a recent afternoon, a handful of unmasked shoppers walked the store's aisles. A staff member told the Free Press employees have been instructed not to approach or challenge unmasked customers in an effort to protect workers' safety, which she said is stressful.
The employee had agreed to speak further on the issue until the interview was cut short by a manager, who directed all questions to Loblaw Companies' public relations department.
The mayor of Winkler has, in his own words, been trying to get to the middle ground since the pandemic began.
"My focus is, how in the world do we live with each other when this is over?" Martin Harder said. "It's tearing families apart, it's tearing businesses apart, it's tearing communities apart."
He said the city has pushed residents to wear masks and follow other public-health guidelines. But he's been critical of other decisions made by the province, particularly the decision to fine people and businesses for non-compliance — a factor that he said has contributed heavily to the discord in the community.
"I will just say, (the Pallister government) are considered to be outsiders, and they're considered to be coming in here to lay down the law and to give fines," he said. "I've never been a proponent of fines. I think that is the wrong way to get support, and I believe I have been proven right, in particular by how this has escalated now into the region where we have that divide."
Harder said the city has been made aware of complaints from residents about people flouting mask rules in big-box stores, but said many were coming from an extreme sense of paranoia about a small group of people. He said plainclothes police officers had monitored some of the stores and found the vast majority of people were masked.
The province has not kept up its responsibility to keep messaging consistent, he said, pointing to the chief public health officer's recent remarks on the possibility of an outdoor mask mandate.
"They're fuelling this thing, they are fuelling it, believe me… they are doing more damage with that, and making people stand up and say, ‘Forget it,’" Harder said.
Churches have also played a part in the anti-restriction movement.
A vocal minority of faith groups in the Southern Health region have made headlines for flouting pandemic rules. The Church of God Restoration, located south of Steinbach, received several $5,000 fines from enforcement officers when it continued to hold Sunday services late last year after in-person faith-based gatherings were prohibited.
On Easter Sunday, the Christian Church of Morden stated publicly it could "no longer obey the Manitoba health orders," and later received a $5,000 fine for holding a full service.
But not all churches are ignoring the rules, though some would like them to.
At Bethel Bergthaler Mennonite Church, about 10 kilometres outside of Winkler, in-person services have resumed in accordance with provincial orders, which currently permit a maximum of 50 people inside at one time.
Senior pastor Randy Smart said Bethel has become creative to ensure congregants can attend services safely; rows of seats have been removed, and services are livestreamed to ensure every member can take part.
The church hosted as many as 500 parishioners, pre-pandemic.
Smart, who has served the church since 2002, acknowledged some members of the community are unhappy about following the rules.
"We're familiar with the local story... we have people in our community who would love to see us be one of those to just open at all costs," he said.
"I know some people who would feel that way. But we're not following that plan. And my point wouldn't be just that we think it's a nice thing to do. We believe that the Scripture teaches that we are to be good citizens, and this is our view of... a part of how we are good citizens in this time."
He believes COVID-19 skepticism exists in the community, in part, because people who settled in Winkler faced unjust governments in other parts of the world.
"I think one element that is probably unspoken, not in Bethel, but in the community, is this lack of trust in government," he said, describing Winkler residents as "hardworking and generous."
"So people who've had exposure and awareness of government tyranny in other places, they’ll come here and they say, 'Oh, no... now the government is going to tell us when the church can open and when the church can't open.’"
Winkler and Morden, located just 13 kilometres apart and referred to as twin cities, are home to just over 22,000 Manitobans.
Morden is the smaller of the two, with a population of just under 9,000. Winkler is the second-fastest-growing city in the province (surpassed only by Winnipeg), with immigrants making up 26.5 per cent of the total population, according to Statistics Canada data from 2016. The majority are Mennonites from Mexico, as well as immigrants from Germany and the former Soviet Union.
More recent immigration includes newcomers from other parts of the world, including the Philippines. In 2017, Winkler opened the first mosque in the region after a small influx of Syrian refugees.
Ralph Dargusch, who arrived from Germany in 2008 has owned Ralph’s German Restaurant and Café for 8 1/2 years. His story is one that’s become all too common over the last year or so; the restaurant was doing well, until it wasn’t.
On a recent afternoon, a quiet seating area belied a relatively busy kitchen, and a few couples were seated at booths.
"This is actually a friendly community," he said. "You know, it's like a village, everybody knows everybody. And in this situation, under this pandemic, it's a little bit divided."
Dargusch searched for the right word in English to describe what he’s seen happen to some of his customers. He settled on "conspiracy."
"Somebody said to me, (it’s about) democracy, the government shapes democracy, or this is the end of democracy… people don't believe it's real," he said.
His daughter, who didn’t want her named published, stood protectively behind her father before speaking up.
"We have to listen to people, in one way mentally abusing us, because they feel like they have to force their opinions on to us."
She said people have harassed their young servers about mask-wearing and social distancing, and regular customers who were once friendly and kind have "gone in two different directions."
"You have people coming in without a mask, and we remind them, please put it on because of the restrictions that were put on us, and we have to listen to, ‘You're stupid for following these restrictions,’" she said.
"We have to listen to people, in one way mentally abusing us, because they feel like they have to force their opinions on to us."
She said much of the fight over COVID-19 exists beyond the restaurant's walls and is playing out on social media.
"You go on Facebook, Instagram — everybody who has a voice, who tells their story, they get trashed within minutes… they just trash them," she said. "You used to share barbecues with this person and yet you're ruining their lives because you're spreading all these bad words about them."
Heather DiFrancesco may be the most popular social media influencer to come out of Winkler.
She has nearly 4,000 Instagram followers and more than 600 on Facebook. Her posts include selfies, photos of her children and material on an essential-oils brand she's marketing.
DiFrancesco also hosts what she calls "Truth Tuesday" — a weekly video session during which she shares her thoughts on COVID-19 case counts and criticizes the province’s pandemic response. The videos receive thousands of views and hundreds of comments, and most are positive. She often emphasizes that she doesn’t deny the existence of COVID-19, but believes the public has not been told the truth about the severity of the virus.
In a video posted April 14, she opened by waving a laminated piece of paper with "press pass" on it, along with her name and her workplace listed as "truth teller." She noted that "this is the first disease where masses of people want it to be worse than it actually is."
“These officials are not for us. We are not in 'this together.' We are living out life on a stage with virtue signalling and so much hypocrisy. This is about something (way) more dangerous than any virus and allowing these two to control every aspect of life is insanity. I am ashamed and afraid to be Canadian.” – Heather DiFrancesco post
In another post from February, she commented on how her community is "still here, divided" and "living in fear of others."
"These officials are not for us. We are not in 'this together,'" the post reads. "We are living out life on a stage with virtue signalling and so much hypocrisy. This is about something (way) more dangerous than any virus and allowing these two to control every aspect of life is insanity. I am ashamed and afraid to be Canadian."
After an interview request from the Free Press, DiFrancesco asked that any questions be written or recorded. After receiving seven questions via email regarding her stance on the pandemic, local rallies, provincial restrictions and her videos as a journalistic resource, she responded with a brief statement that said she was "sad that the mandates and inconsistencies have torn apart our society," and referenced "data (that) has shown increased overdose, suicide, mental health, missed diagnosis, delayed surgeries and fear."
Morden's mayor has difficulty accepting the beliefs held by people such as DiFrancesco.
Burley shared that a friend, who was relatively healthy, young and fit, had recently died from COVID-19.
"What shocks me is the people I know who've had family pass away from it and will still deny its existence. That to me is absolutely baffling," he said.
"But the disinformation around COVID-19 is just so pervasive."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.