Undaunted by Monday afternoon's overcast chill, a choir from the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach stood unmasked on the back steps of the Manitoba Law Courts, belting out hymns to a large crowd gathered closely together on the lawn below.
"We are the church that can't be defeated," the choir sang, as behind the courthouse walls, the Church of God and other religious groups waged a constitutional challenge against the Manitoba government over pandemic public-health measures, arguing restrictions on church gatherings amount to an overstep of charter rights.
More than 100 people gathered on the lawn, packed shoulder to shoulder in violation of those health orders, standing unmasked and bearing signs claiming, "Faith is Essential," "Love over Fear" and "No Mask Zone."
"We are here for a very important reason, and that is to send a message that the church is essential," said Church of God Restoration Minister Tobias Tissen, speaking to the passionately faithful crowd.
"We have reached a point in Canada where they are targeting us. Right now, we have restrictions in place that have specifically targeted the church."
Tissen was joined by pastors and anti-lockdown speakers from across the country, many who admitted flying into the province just days earlier, including Laura-Lynn Thompson of Vancouver, fellow Church of God Restoration pastor Henry Hildebrandt of Ontario and Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski.
They decried COVID-19 vaccines, tests and restrictions, comparing limitations imposed on the church to those placed on restaurants and grocery stores. Currently, attendance at indoor religious services are limited to 25 per cent of capacity or 10 people, whichever is fewer.
Tissen showed the crowd a fistful of pink violation notices he's received after conducting church services in violation of health orders, and said people who are ticketed should be "honoured."
"Bring it on," he said. "Just bring it on."
Police were nearby — cruiser vehicles were parked a block away — but officers were not visible during much of the rally.
In an email statement issued shortly afterward, a provincial spokesperson did not indicate whether any tickets were issued at the event.
"Enforcement officers are present and are closely monitoring the event, including collecting video evidence in support of ticketing for non-compliance with public health orders. Information collected will be used for ongoing investigations," the statement said.
Similar statements were issued after similar gatherings, including a demonstration that attracted more than 300 people at The Forks two weekends ago. Provincial officials announced Monday that 20 tickets — each accompanied by a $1,296 fine — have been issued thus far to people who attended that April 25 protest.
Provincial officials also said "personnel empowered to enforce public health orders were present at rallies in Winnipeg and Winkler this past weekend" and have taken video as evidence for future ticketing.
Winnipeg police declined comment Monday, noting only that officers "were present and worked with provincial Public Health officials in a support role."
Police could, however, be seen leading at least one protester away after an altercation towards the end of the event.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.