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A church service near Steinbach drew over a hundred vehicles and a crowd of protesters, even after a physical barricade and an advance warning from RCMP that religious gatherings could result in fines.
The Church of God Restoration, located about 15 kilometres south of Steinbach, held another Sunday church service despite being fined $5,000 for gathering last weekend.
All faith-based gatherings must be held virtually under the current public health restrictions.
Though the church said this Sunday it planned to host congregants in a drive-in service, police made it clear that people would not be allowed to congregate in the church’s parking lot by blocking the entrance with an RCMP vehicle.
The service was eventually played on the radio and over loudspeakers.
As vehicles parked alongside Highway 12 adjacent to the church, some people confronted police and protested the blockade — including Patrick Allard and Todd Dube.
"You can go back into Winnipeg and go to Walmart, and there’ll be 800 cars in the parking lot, just like there is in Costco, but we can’t go in this parking lot because it’s deadly? What if I put a Walmart sign on that building, would that make it better?" Dube said.
"This is going to go down in the history books of the RCMP being on the wrong side of the law," said Allard, who added he had already been fined previously for breaking public-gathering restrictions.
In a release on Friday, RCMP issued a reminder that all non-virtual religious gatherings, regardless of whether or not people stayed in their vehicles, were not allowed. Many of those who left their vehicles Sunday were stopped by police and notified that if they were to congregate outside of the church, they could be hit with a $1,296 fine.
Church of God minister Tobias Tissen, who has received two fines for failing to comply with public health orders, doubled down on his intentions to continue services Sunday.
"Really, these police officers that are here blocking our entrance, they’re not blocking us, they are blocking God … by laying fines upon us, handing out tickets – mister officers, do you realize you are doing that to God?" he said.
"Why are you asking us why we’re here, why don’t you ask (chief public health officer Dr.) Roussin why we can’t be here?" Allard said.
The province’s top doctor reiterated on Friday that faith-based gatherings have been identified as proven sources of COVID-19 transmission.
"We know that from the literature, from our own experience, that prolonged, indoor gathering such as faith-based gatherings are high risk for super-spreading events," he said.
Another visitor to the church, who asked not to be named, said he came out to support the gathering because he believes what the province deems as essential and non-essential is unfair.
"The gym provides essential services for me. It helps me to boost my immune system. The church provides essential services for those who believe in God — it’s essential to them … some would say it’s more important to them than food and water," he said.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, a similar service was taking place at Springs Church on Lagimodiere Boulevard, the second in two days — one was held on Saturday night, and three more were planned for Sunday.
Both Saturday and Sunday’s services drew crowds at Springs Church, where visitors were invited to watch the service on a large video screen from their vehicles.
The province did not confirm Sunday how many tickets were handed out as a result of either service, but at least one person was pulled aside by police at Church of God and given a ticket after filming the crowd while driving.
Allard said if he’s ticketed, he will fight the charge.
"I hope they try to make an example out of me. I hope the Crown attorney keeps this ticket alive. Don’t drop the ticket, come at me — we’re going to set a precedent."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.