As his city experiences water restrictions, a string of hot July days and a low ranking on the provincial vaccination list, Winkler Mayor Martin Harder feels the heat more than usual these days.
"When your temperature is hot already, you just need the little extra push to get you to the boiling point," he says metaphorically of the combination of hot weather, level-three water restrictions, verbal anti-vaxxers and increased privileges for double-vaccinated folks.
"The chatter right now is very much on discrimination."
Only one-quarter of Winkler’s 15,000 residents can dine with their friends at restaurants, visit museums and galleries, or take in a Winnipeg Blue Bombers football game under new public health guidelines that take effect Saturday. The new guidelines offer more freedoms to Manitobans who have proof of vaccination for COVID-19.
"The chatter right now is very much on discrimination." – Mayor Martin Harder
Only the R.M. of Stanley, home to about 10,000 people in the area that surrounds Winkler, has a lower vaccination rate: 12.9 per cent of the population 12 and older is fully vaccinated. As of Friday, Winkler’s rate of double vaccination was 25.4 per cent.
Instead of viewing the new public health guidelines as incentives, Harder said unvaccinated Winkler residents — who stop him on the street or contact him by text or telephone — view these measures as a punishment for being opposed to getting inoculated.
"It’s supposed to be a carrot," the 71-year-old Harder says, now in his 15th year as mayor.
"Here’s the problem. The more these kinds of things come out, the harder the stance (against vaccines) gets."
More than a month ago, Harder told the province to back off on promoting vaccines in his community, saying Winkler could find its own solutions. He invited physician Dr. Don Klassen to join him in recording a video that tells people COVID-19 is real and to get vaccinated. A Free Press reporter and photographer witnessed and documented the filming. Now, the mayor said that strategy backfired.
"The video I did with Dr. Klassen was to soften it and check with your local doctor," he said about the purpose of the one-minute piece distributed on social media and the city website.
"That video has created more animosity than I ever expected."
That anger may be directed more to politicians than medical professionals, suggested Klassen, who also participated in a virtual town hall with Doctors Manitoba last month.
After 42 years of practising medicine in his hometown, his goal these days is to be available to anyone who has questions about COVID-19 and the safety of the vaccines. He even spent several hours at the local Mennonite Central Committee thrift shop, where he serves as a board member, quietly talking to any volunteers who wanted more information, had concerns or questions, or needed assurance to get vaccinated.
"I personally try to have decent conversations with them," he said about how he addresses the topic when seeing patients in his practice.
"Whatever they came in about, I would ask if they are vaccinated against COVID."
If his patients are reluctant to visit the super site in Morden, Klassen offers to vaccinate them in his downtown Winkler clinic instead, hoping that the privacy will reassure them.
"I’ve said to people ‘Don’t let other people make up your mind,’" he explained, adding that some people feel pressured by friends and family to reject the vaccine.
Klassen and his colleagues at the community-run C.W. Wiebe Medical Centre vaccinated about 600 people last month in pop-up clinics at local businesses, factories and service organizations.
Reducing barriers and improving access may be one way Winkler can raise its vaccination rate, agreed Keith Gislason, president of the Winkler Chamber of Commerce. Some workers don’t want to book off time to get their shots or were frustrated by long waits for appointments, and workplace clinics can eliminate those issues, he said.
"For a lot of people, it makes it easy because they don’t have to take time away from work or their families," said Gislason, chief executive officer of GTP Chartered Professional Accountants in Winkler.
He said the entrepreneurial culture of Winkler also creates hesitancy, where people watch and wait while others get their shots because they generally don’t jump to follow trends, preferring to follow their own paths or take calculated risks.
"I do talk to a lot of people who are not first in line because that’s not what they do," said Gislason.
"People believe in themselves and in their own process. The flip side is they don’t like to be told this is the only answer and this is what you must do."
“People believe in themselves and in their own process. The flip side is they don’t like to be told this is the only answer and this is what you must do.” – Keith Gislason, president of the Winkler Chamber of Commerce
That do-it-yourself attitude has led to growth of about three per cent in Winkler during recent years, along with a reputation for leadership in education and industry, said Harder, who credits a culture of determination and innovation for that growth.
"We’re a people who are inventive and we are a people who build, and the best way to build is if the government stays out of the way," he said.
Although the mayor doesn’t like the current provincial government incentives of privileges and lotteries, Harder also understands the only way out of the global pandemic—and Winkler’s bottom ranking in vaccination rates-- is by getting more needles into arms. He worries about the future of his community and feels tensions are flaring up, especially as rules and restrictions change.
"The animosity we’re dealing with today, honestly, is worse than the disease," he said, referring to the effects of COVID-19.
"It’s breaking families apart, it’s breaking communities apart, it’s breaking churches apart because of the inability to see the other side."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.