Manitoba's justice minister wants to counter claims his department did not respond appropriately to the anti-mask rally at The Forks on Sunday, but he admits that enforcement personnel could be more visible at such events.

Manitoba's justice minister wants to counter claims his department did not respond appropriately to the anti-mask rally at The Forks on Sunday, but he admits that enforcement personnel could be more visible at such events.

Cameron Friesen said officials were on site and he was kept informed of the situation. Officers were taking video and gathering other evidence that will be used to issue more tickets than the two handed out at the event, he said.

"I just want to make clear that every time someone in this province is going to try to assemble (at) a rally or a gathering like that — a public event that clearly contravenes the rules — it should be their expectation that they will be monitored and that there will be consequences," he said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

Manitoba justice minister Cameron Friesen.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba justice minister Cameron Friesen.

Friesen acknowledged that it is also important, for both would-be scofflaws and the general public, that enforcement officers are seen to be doing their job.

"Perhaps our presence will have to be more conspicuous as a result of the lessons that we’ve taken away from this last weekend’s event," the minister said.

At a news conference earlier Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister empathized with Manitobans who are frustrated the event, which attracted hundreds of maskless people in violation of public-health orders, was not shut down.

“I just want to make clear that every time someone in this province is going to try to assemble (at) a rally or a gathering like that ‐ a public event that clearly contravenes the rules ‐ it should be their expectation that they will be monitored and that there will be consequences." — Manitoba's justice minister Cameron Friesen

"That's a great question. It's a frustration, frankly, for I think a lot of Manitobans who are doing their absolute best to comply with the public-health rules to see people go out and disrespect those rules," he told reporters.

"I expect there will be more tickets as a consequence of that activity that was held, and I feel very strongly that we need to do more in terms of enforcement."

Province keeping mask on health-order enforcement process

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Todd Dube, left, wasn’t one of the people fined Sunday at the anti-mask rally at the Forks with speaker Chris “Sky” Saccoccia.
Todd Dube, left, wasn’t one of the people fined Sunday at the anti-mask rally at the Forks with speaker Chris “Sky” Saccoccia.

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Friesen did not estimate how many tickets would be issued as a result of the Sunday's demonstration, but he said "clearly more" would be forthcoming.

"These kind of events that clearly contravene the rules cannot go without answer," he said. "Those few who are breaking the rules... should know that when they are gathering in sizes that are not permitted, they should assume that enforcement officials will be interested in that."

He said his department is looking at how it can anticipate such incidents and "align the response to the significance of the event."

But, clearly, the province could "message better," he said.

"There was this assertion that somehow no one was there and nothing was being done. And it wasn’t true, but we have to be clear that we have the responsibility to be proactive and tell the public what is going on. So, clearly in advance of events like this, when events are known to be proceeding, there should be actions to dissuade participants and organizers from actually going there," he said. "But then, after the fact, when we have acted, we’ve got to tell the public why, because compliance matters."

Anti-maskers gathered at the Forks during a rally in Winnipeg Sunday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Anti-maskers gathered at the Forks during a rally in Winnipeg Sunday.

Friesen said it's not his role as justice minister to dictate that arrests be made at such rallies. He said that call rightly belongs to law enforcement.

The officers who attended the event and assessed the situation thought it was better not to attract attention to themselves, he said.

Enforcement officials may publicly share some of the video they took in an effort to identify other participants, he said, again adding that's not up to him.

And he said he won't second-guess decisions not to make any arrests at the event.

Friesen said the enforcement of public-health orders is being beefed up, in general. There is going to be a greater enforcement presence in stores and malls to ensure mask compliance and physical-distancing requirements are being followed.

He said the public should also expect more officers ensuring rules are followed on restaurant patios and elsewhere.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he's not convinced that the province has used every tool at its disposal to communicate with the public about vaccine hesitancy or on the need for public health-order compliance.

"We have seen what the government can do in terms of advertising when they really want to get behind something," he said. "We have yet to see that on the vaccination side or the public-health side."

Kinew said it is "a balancing act" for enforcement officials when facing the prospect of a large rally such as the one that occurred at The Forks.

"You don't want to unintentionally amplify their message or misinformation and distrust for Public Health by handling it in the wrong way," he said. "You don't want to make a martyr of anyone."

 

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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