ATHABASCA – The organizers of so-called freedom rallies being held across the region in recent months that are opposed to the mandatory public health restrictions put in place by the Alberta government in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, will receive a strongly-worded letter from Athabasca town council regarding an event planned in town for April 29.
A second letter will also be sent to Alberta Solicitor General and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu regarding the reluctance of prosecutors to follow through when Public Health Act violations reach the court following presentations by two local residents at the April 20 council meeting who asked councillors to make their positions clear as a group and take a firm, public stand against more of these rallies coming to town.
Daniel Schiff and Monica Rosborough took about 10 minutes each to present their cases to council, bringing along with them a petition signed by about 790 people at the time, a third of which identified as residents of the Athabasca region.
The Change.org petition, which is still available on the website is addressed to Benita Pedersen, one of the organizers of the rallies, and was aimed at like-minded individuals who want to see a stop to the rallies. As of April 25, there are now more than 860 signatories.
First of all, said Schiff, organizers of these gatherings promote anti-medical data and unfounded conspiracy theories, use racist and anti-Semitic symbols and they contravene the Public Health Act.
“There is the health risk of the rally attendees not wearing masks. The fact that they are not social-distancing and that they're in greater numbers than public health orders allow,” he said. “Further to this, the promotion of misinformation during the pandemic, especially as it relates to pandemic and expert medical advice, is sure to contribute to bad decisions by some members of the public.”
He also argued the rallies “tarnish the town's reputation as a safe and sensible place to visit. The rallies are bad for local businesses as people are likely to avoid town. They're bad for community morale in an already difficult time and these rallies will lead to prolonging the pandemic for everyone and not end lockdowns.”
Rosborough acknowledged the petition was not legally binding, but said these are unprecedented times and events, and she hoped to encourage council to consider that Canada is shaped by different principles than the United States, especially the right to good governance, especially during a viral pandemic.
“Many people are claiming that their rights are being suppressed and are labouring under the assumption that there are inalienable rights to freedom of speech, and to gather to exercise that freedom of speech, that however is more of an American mode of thinking than Canadian,” she said.
She urged council to do all they can to send a strong message to organizers, residents and around the province.
“I sometimes think that we have a hard time leading in Canada because we want to be nice. We don't want to make difficult decisions, especially if we feel that they might make us unpopular,” said Rosborough.
“The town needs leadership and guidance that is firm, or else we can end up with a cohort of people who think that they can do whatever they want. Just like parents can end up with spoiled toddlers that can really wreak havoc on family life. We as a society can end up with potential anarchy in our society and we don't want that.”
Coun. Ida Edwards, who is also Pedersen’s sister, said she was in favour of following all AHS guidelines regarding public gatherings and used an analogy of speed limits on the highway, saying now is a time to slow down.
“I want to adhere to AHS recommendations and standards in the case of public gatherings in our community and not just target one gathering, but all gatherings,” she said. “We're in a volatile time of this virus, and if we can rein in our desire for speed, in terms of the economy getting better, people getting their businesses up and running and jobs being recovered, I think we're going to need it, so, I'm all for upholding limiting gatherings to 10 or less people.”
Rosborough later added her concern about the other groups these rallies are coming to be associated with, and said of Pedersen that “it's very disconcerting for those of us who know her and love her. This is the difficult part — we know and love these people — and we know that some of this is COVID fatigue, this marathon of mental health challenges, but this is not the appropriate way to deal with that, and we're doing our part, and we know and recognize that you're trying to do your part as well.”
Mayor Colleen Powell added town officials have been in touch with RCMP about the event, but the issue has not necessarily been about enforcing the public health restrictions, instead it is a lack of follow-through from special prosecutors, as tickets are being thrown out before they have been heard.
“We are already in discussion with the police. Trust me. We have not been sitting still here. The problem that we've run into, and it's not just us, is that the police have been giving these rally people tickets, but a number of these tickets have been thrown out by special prosecutors. This is a real problem,” she said.
Coun. John Traynor, who is a teacher at Edwin Parr Composite School, which is currently recovering from an outbreak that affected more than 100 students directly, and about 800 others through close contact, suggested the petition should be forwarded to Minister Madu, which council agreed to.
“That's the person I think we should direct those comments and petitions to, because for the authority and those types of actions, I think that's the people that we should be directing our energies toward,” he said, and reiterated it later in the meeting.
Coun. Tannia Cherniwchan agreed with Traynor’s suggestion.
“I agree that we should send a response to the Solicitor General and to state in very strong terms, that in order for us to practice proper peace, order and good governance in our communities, we need the kind of support that is not being provided to us, so it's difficult to do anything when we can't,” she said.
Coun. Edwards also agreed, and added she would like to see more about the supports that are available to residents through the Alberta government, whether it be mental health, financial, or business supports.
“It is really important to state what is positive and what is working to help contain COVID,” she said, adding those who are discouraged or struggling with the current situation should know there are places to turn other than a rally.
Coun. Dave Pacholok said he sympathized with the presenters, but was still unclear about what could actually be done.
“I would like to see this stop, especially in regard to our COVID outbreak that we've had in this town and this county for the last month. I'm willing to do what is necessary, so I'm hoping someone can come up with an idea,” he said.
“I'm okay with us sending the message that as a council we value the constitution, and our constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and assembly, but that being said, we expect any such protest will comply with following all public health restrictions ordered by the Alberta chief medical officer and AHS,” said Coun. Rob Balay, adding later, “I also wouldn't mind the clause being in there that says we condemn any symbols of bigotry, or racism in that letter.”
Mayor Powell added she has been asked many times why the town doesn’t just ban the rallies.
“Well, first of all, we can, but it won't do any good, and they are effectively provincially banned already in the provincial legislation, so it's a matter of trying to make them see that they're not welcome here and that they're not going to get any bang for their buck here, and that's not as easy to do as you think, but I think your petition is a good start,” she said.
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