Life after restrictions Six months after public-health orders dropped, quiet has largely returned to southern Manitoba — but anger lingers

When the mayor of Morden thinks back on leading the southern Manitoba city during and post-pandemic, he knows full well it’s come at an immense personal cost.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/08/2022 (231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the mayor of Morden thinks back on leading the southern Manitoba city during and post-pandemic, he knows full well it’s come at an immense personal cost.

Brandon Burley was one of the first — and loudest — pro-COVID-19 vaccine, pro-mask, pro-restrictions leaders in the area, which saw low vaccination uptake rates and pushback against public health orders.

Nearly six months after Manitoba dropped its COVID restrictions, life is different for Burley. He’s lost at least a dozen friends — they chose to end the friendship, he says, because their beliefs didn’t align with his. But losing a few friends hasn’t been the worst of it.

“The specific acute example is some of those people giving up my home address to people who were making threats and thinking that was a justified reaction to their grief around the vaccine,” Burley, 40, said this week. “Those kinds of betrayals.”

He has no regrets, though. He is seeking another term as mayor and said he’s been able to create new connections in the midst of his advocacy. While the dust has settled around public health rules, the fight hasn’t ended.

“There will be a part of this, I think that will be charged for a very long time.

“And even though restrictions are going away, that anger that’s boiled up is now turning to other things… I think what we discovered is that sometimes being angry feels useful, and feels like it makes you relevant, and I think that it will take some time for some portion of the population to settle into a rhythm of not having to be politically charged.”

In the Southern Health region, 69.5 per cent of residents have had their first vaccine dose, 66.7 per cent have their second and 34.1 per cent have their third. The region’s uptake remains the lowest in the province.

Winkler Mayor Martin Harder supported dropping restrictions six months ago, saying the city couldn’t afford the financial impact of keeping them any longer. He said he hasn’t seen a shift in the sentiments from his 14,000 constituents.

“I don’t think we’ve changed anybody’s mind,” said Harder, 73. “Those who were anti-vaxxers are still anti-vax, people who were anti-mask are still anti-mask, people that were pro and for whatever, they’re still vehemently voicing their opinions.”

Some of those opinions have come in new packages. Convoys of truckers who have largely moved on from criticizing COVID-19 restrictions still roll through, but with new targets — anger at the federal government and support for international protests that align with their ideals. A recent protest that began in Headingley promoted solidarity with farmers in the Netherlands, currently in a standoff with government over the country’s new nitrogen policies.

Seeing upside-down or defaced Canadian flags on vehicles is particularly painful for Harder, who said many of those who pass through aren’t from Winkler.

“Whenever I see a truck driving, and this isn’t just a personal experience, I’ve talked to some other people who have a similar experience — you know how sometimes you get that gut-wrenching feeling within? It’s just like your stomach just gives you a shot? Every time I see one of those, I say, ‘Wow, this is just wrong.’”

Harder’s name won’t be on the ballot when Manitobans vote in October’s municipal elections. He believes Winkler largely supported his middle-ground approach to the pandemic, and those who didn’t had no impact on his decision. He hopes if there comes a time when COVID-19, monkeypox or future health crises results in renewed discussions around mandates, that the province be more consistent on messaging.

“I think if they take a look at the restrictions, if there are any coming, they better look at them very carefully not to make the same mistakes they did the last time. Because otherwise, it’ll blow up,” he said.

Harder has thrown his support behind the sole registered candidate in Winkler’s mayoral race, deputy mayor Henry Siemens. Siemens found himself in the middle of the divide a year ago when the sign rental company he operates, Magnetsigns, was asked to create signage displaying opinions on both sides of the COVID debate.

On at least one occasion, the company took down a sign after hearing concerns from the public — an advertisement for controversial horse dewormer ivermectin as a suitable treatment for COVID-19. Siemens was criticized for that sign, and others, regardless of whether they had been created by his company.

Those days appear to be over — Siemens hasn’t received a request to produce a COVID-19-related sign this year. He’s optimistic about how Winkler has moved on post-restrictions, noting the city’s entrepreneurial spirit has allowed the economy to rebound.

“I think the divisiveness that was there, by and large, is largely backed away, people are working hard to rebuild relationships,” said Siemens, 54.

Siemens is vaccinated and encourages constituents with concerns to speak with their doctor. He hopes should anyone else throw their hat into the race, they keep the conversations focused on issues under the municipality’s umbrella.

Megan Franklin grew up in Winkler. Watching communities in her home continue to splinter months after pandemic restrictions were lifted has been difficult for the business owner.

“It is so frustrating,” said Franklin, 27. “As long as that continues to be a very visible part of our community, there will be a divide, because not everybody agrees with that, and not everybody agrees that our Canadian flag should have been taken and co-opted into something that is just not right.”

Franklin opened Winkler-based wellness studio Frank + Olive in March 2020 — a tough time to open a business as it was. It got tougher when Franklin decided to continue mandating masks after the province lifted restrictions both briefly in August 2021 and again in March 2022. At the time, she dealt with hateful phone calls and messages. She said the support she’s received has far outweighed the negative.

“I’ve had to have some conversations with other local business owners and just say as much as you might fear standing up for the right thing, or placing your voice behind this issue, the negative responses don’t necessarily come from people within the community. And even though there are a few of them, and they are loud, overall, I have continued to be supported and pushed forward by the people around me,” she said.

Franklin decided to make masks optional in June, but staff continue to wear them — as do many of the clients. Business has been good, and she finds herself surrounded with people who share her values. It’s part of what motivates her to stay.

“I have watched a lot of great people from Winkler and surrounding communities leave and move away to different provinces or different cities because of the climate in Winkler, and something that I’ve kind of told myself throughout watching all of that is that if we all leave because we’re not happy with the way things are going here, who is going to change those things so that people in the future aren’t dealing with the same issues?”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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