Two local rallies in two days against incoming public health orders have left some southern Manitoba leaders disavowing the method, with others stopping short at disavowing the message.

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Two local rallies in two days against incoming public health orders have left some southern Manitoba leaders disavowing the method, with others stopping short at disavowing the message.

After the province announced proof of immunization would be required for health-care workers, teachers and correctional centre employees starting Sept. 3 — and without such proof Manitobans would not be able to take part in a variety of public activities — rallies Sunday and Monday drew more than 1,000 people each on Highway 32, just south of Winkler.

In nearby Morden, Mayor Brandon Burley didn’t mince words criticizing leadership that wouldn’t publicly reject the rationale behind the gatherings.

"I think right now there's a serious issue with regards to the voices that are being heard, and the voices that are being loud and the voices that are being most prominent. And right now, the voices we need to be establishing as municipal leaders is that vaccines are necessary, and vaccines are the only way we're going to get through this quickly and efficiently," he said Tuesday.

Event organizer Shawn Enns speaks at an anti-COVID-19 restriction rally in Winkler on Monday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Event organizer Shawn Enns speaks at an anti-COVID-19 restriction rally in Winkler on Monday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"And that people who are not doing their due diligence with respect to the vaccine, people who are thriving in the chaos created by this vacuum, are people who will have blood on their hands."

Burley, who himself suffered through a long-haul bout of COVID-19 last year, said ideas being spread based on "a deep misunderstanding" of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms will have dangerous consequences for his constituents.

"As a father of four children under the age of 12, all of whom will be going into public education this year, I'm absolutely disgusted by the fact that people are still willing to endanger the lives of my children through their reckless regard for facts, science and evidence."

People are frustrated with the province’s health orders, and the rallies were a natural response of people feeling like their concerns haven’t been heard, said Winkler Mayor Martin Harder.

"I don't know how many times I've said it in the last six months, that we will get to the breaking point," he said Tuesday. "And quite honestly, that breaking point has come."

Rallies Sunday and Monday drew an estimated 1,000 people each day on Highway 32, just south of Winkler. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Rallies Sunday and Monday drew an estimated 1,000 people each day on Highway 32, just south of Winkler. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

However, Harder was critical of the decision to hold such large gatherings in Winkler, at a time where COVID-19 spikes could mean overfilled ICU rooms at Boundary Trails Hospital.

"I'm disappointed when caution is thrown to the wind. And I'm disappointed with the approach," he said.

Winkler has the second-lowest vaccine uptake rate in the province, with just 39 per cent of eligible adults with at least one dose. Only the Stanley health district has fewer people vaccinated, at 22.5 per cent.

In Morden, 67.5 per cent of eligible adults are at least partly vaccinated.

Harder said some of the commentary, particularly demands Winkler be deemed a "sanctuary city" for those who oppose COVID-19 prevention measures, was an "unreasonable" approach to the issue.

On Monday, when asked if the province was aware of a rally in Winkler that evening and if officials would be handing out tickets, a spokesperson emphasized the current outdoor limit is 1,500 people and any tickets handed out would be listed as part of next week’s COVID-19 enforcement bulletin.

People are frustrated with the province’s health orders and the rallies were a natural response of people feeling like their concerns haven’t been heard, says Winkler Mayor Martin Harder. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

People are frustrated with the province’s health orders and the rallies were a natural response of people feeling like their concerns haven’t been heard, says Winkler Mayor Martin Harder. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"From what I've heard, it was quite respectful... they were trying their best to be respectful citizens and trying to get their point across," said Winkler & District Chamber of Commerce president Keith Gislason.

The local chamber has encouraged its members to follow COVID-19 health regulations but won’t make recommendations one way or the other regarding vaccination, he said.

"There's an indirect impact where we're concerned about the public opinion of Winkler, we have some very good and conscientious people here that are trying their best to run businesses, of all kinds. And some of them have been hurt pretty hard this year."

In the Rural Municipality of Stanley, which sits between Morden and Winkler, Reeve Morris Olafson said a call from a Free Press reporter was the first he’d heard about the rallies and wouldn’t comment on them.

Hundreds rally in Steinbach

A rally Monday protesting mask mandates in schools and mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations drew hundreds in Steinbach.

Reports estimated 300 people gathered on the lawn outside the Hanover School Division offices, including federal election candidates for the People's Party of Canada.

Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk is an opponent of vaccine passports — he noted Tuesday he himself is double-vaccinated but does not carry a proof of immunization card — but said such rallies can be divisive in a way that leaves no room for understanding.

A rally Monday protesting mask mandates in schools and mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations drew hundreds in Steinbach. 

Reports estimated 300 people gathered on the lawn outside the Hanover School Division offices, including federal election candidates for the People's Party of Canada.

Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk is an opponent of vaccine passports — he noted Tuesday he himself is double-vaccinated but does not carry a proof of immunization card — but said such rallies can be divisive in a way that leaves no room for understanding.

“I'm okay, with protests. We are so grateful and thankful that we have freedom of speech in Canada and in in Manitoba… On the same hand, often when we go through hard times like this, there's an opportunity to be compassionate. And there's an opportunity to put ourselves in other people's shoes,” he said.

Funk said his point of view has been influenced by tragedy — he’s lost more than one loved one to COVID-19 — and the need to protect his aging mother. But he remains steadfastly against encouraging his constituents one way or the other.

"I do have people, family members, that are not vaccinated. And that's wonderful, if that's what they want to do, that's their choice,” he said. “I can't make those decisions for people, those decisions have to be made by themselves.”

However, Olafson, who is vaccinated, said he, too, sympathizes with business owners who will have to turn away a segment of the customer base.

"Restaurant guys and all that, they're sitting there (thinking), 'Oh, well, we've finally got to a point, maybe we can get our staff back and maybe we can make a buck,'" he said. "And then with this last round, 'Okay, pull out your ID before I let you in the door' — stand in their shoes."

Vaccine passports shouldn’t be treated like an inherent barrier to financial gain, and rather a way to fast-track pre-COVID economic success, Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said.

"You've got tradeoffs: if you want there to be economic and social well-being and prosperity returning, that has to be within the context of still safety and not spreading the virus... you have to have a parameter of safety in place," she said.

"Otherwise, the option is to go back to shutdowns, go back to again crippling the economic well-being of many in our society, because we're not going to risk your health and your safety."

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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