A councillor who represents the municipality with the lowest vaccination rate in Manitoba has apologized for having a sign on his property that encouraged the public to distrust the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Free Press reported last week about anti-vax slogans in the RM of Stanley, where less than one in five eligible residents is fully vaccinated. A prominent sign had been erected on land owned by Alfred "Bitz" Loewen, who represents ward two in the municipality.
The sign, which faced the highway between Morden and Winkler, had a giant cutout of a needle with the word "experimental" on it, and a rotating set of messages, including calling the vaccine a "#Clotshot," suggesting the drug Ivermectin (typically used as a de-wormer for livestock) is a proven successful treatment for COVID-19 and implying the vaccination rollout violates the Nuremberg Code.
Loewen, who repeatedly ignored requests for an interview last week, took down the sign after the Free Press story ran.
He contacted a reporter to explain that a resident had asked him to place the sign on his land and he agreed.
"I own a little chunk of land along that major highway there. And people come to me... and people put what they want on their signs. And I don't care what they put on there, I don't monitor it," he said.
He said he was only told vaguely what the signage would display. Today, he regrets the decision.
"Unfortunately, this sign came up that I'm not in favour of, but it happened," he said. "So if I need to say I'm sorry, I'm sorry I allowed this to happen. I can, and I will ask for forgiveness. That's not what this community is all about."
“So if I need to say I'm sorry, I'm sorry I allowed this to happen. I can, and I will ask for forgiveness. That's not what this community is all about.” – Alfred "Bitz" Loewen
Loewen, a farmer who has lived on the same plot of land his entire life, said he received threatening emails after the Free Press revealed his connection to the sign. He did not report it to police and said he had deleted the emails.
Stanley’s councillors, himself included, would not encourage constituents to make a decision about vaccines, he said.
Loewen would not say whether he has been vaccinated, but insisted he is not an anti-vaxxer.
The person behind the sign was Travis Fehr, a farmer who said he was offered the space for free.
"I stand by everything, every message I've had on the sign," he said. "Every word has been true."
Fehr, who said he believes the success of COVID-19 drug treatments has been kept secret by people in power, has other signs in the community. His goal is to spread a religious message that encourages people to trust in God before "pastors, or politicians, or doctors, or anybody else."
"I believe that God is going to start a fiery revival for Jesus in Manitoba, and so I want to be a part of that. So I do have some signs out there," he said.
Fehr wouldn’t say how much involvement Loewen had about the messaging on the sign.
During his conversation with the Free Press, Fehr recommended alternative research he'd found to support his views.
He finds his sources on Telegram, a messenger app that touts its privacy features and is known for hosting far-right personalities that are often banned on mainstream apps.
"If there is a treatment for COVID, and our government leaders, and our doctors, and our media are suppressing information about a treatment for COVID, I believe that's, to use a strong word, I believe that's evil," he said.
The concern that there’s a wide network hiding information about COVID-19 from the public is common, said Don Klassen, a doctor in nearby Winkler, which has the second-lowest vaccine uptake rate in the province.
"I believe that God is going to start a fiery revival for Jesus in Manitoba, and so I want to be a part of that. So I do have some signs out there." – Travis Fehr
"It always fascinates me that somebody will come and say, 'You know, there's a doctor in Texas who says this, or there's a doctor in Louisiana who said this.' Well, you know, there's lots of good medical opinions in Manitoba, if you’d like. Why, instead of focusing on one doctor from Texas, why don't you (check) what the opinion is in Manitoba?" he said.
"Or, why is it that physicians have such a high vaccination rate, way more than 80 per cent? Are they all bought off by the vaccine companies? Well, I don't think so, because I haven't got my cheque yet."
After months of campaigning for vaccinations, Klassen, who has been a doctor in Winkler for four decades and is a practising Christian, said he tries to remain optimistic, but some of the conspiracy theories being pushed in the community have been damaging.
"Or, why is it that physicians have such a high vaccination rate, way more than 80 per cent? Are they all bought off by the vaccine companies? Well, I don't think so, because I haven't got my cheque yet." – Winkler doctor Don Klassen
"This isn't a government plot. This is a medical condition," he said. "Somehow, we've mixed all those other things into this medical condition, which has made a lot of people very ill."
He said he will continue to work to increase vaccine uptake, but fears the incoming fourth wave of COVID-19 will hit the region hard.
"I don't think that our vaccination rates are going to get as high as the provincial one. I hope I'm wrong about that," he said.
"As a result of that, I think we will be disproportionate contributors to any fourth wave illness that may well be about to come. I think this area will be disproportionate contributors in terms of ill, very sick people."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.