About 100-200 people gathered at The Forks Saturday afternoon to protest ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, despite the absence of People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, the rally’s organizer.
Bernier was arrested Friday after speaking at another rally near St. Pierre-Jolys, part of a series of events the party dubbed the "Mad Max Manitoba Tour."
According to his party, Bernier was released late Friday evening on the condition that he paid a cash bail of $1,000 and promised not to break Manitoba law. Bernier posted on Twitter that he had left the province Saturday morning.
"The arrest of Canadians for gathering outdoors to protest in an exercise of their constitutional freedoms is not something that governments ought to be arresting anybody for," said Bernier’s lawyer, Jay Cameron.
An RCMP spokesperson said Friday Bernier was taken into custody "to prevent the continuation of an offence" and for assembling at an outdoor public place and failing to self-isolate as mandated under public health guidelines.
Cameron acknowledged that governments are able to enact limits in view of public health, but said that current restrictions are too broad and that they must be "demonstrably justified."
The rally at The Forks featured a smattering of signs sporting Bernier’s face, party posters, Canadian flags and a few handmade signs in the crowd, some of which likened public health orders to Nazi rule.
The event began with a religious tone, with multiple pastors mixing prayer with political commentary. The prayers admonished Dr. Roussin and Brian Pallister as leading an "ungodly government." Speakers said the public health orders and Bernier’s arrest violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One speaker voiced his support for Tobias Tissen, minister at the Church of God (Restoration) in the RM of Hanover. Police have issued a warrant for Tissen's arrest for violating public health orders.
One speaker denounced the creation of vaccine passports and the lottery for vaccinated people recently announced by the province, saying, "Why are you using carrots and sticks if you have truth on your side?"
The speaker said he doesn’t believe testing results are accurate and downplayed the potential danger of COVID-19.
At one point, two counter protesters walked through the front of the crowd. One of them used a megaphone siren and tossed what appeared to be glitter on the crowd and toward the speaker.
A group of people from the crowd then amassed behind the counter protesters, yelling at them and one person pushing the woman to the ground. Another man from the crowd then followed the counter protesters to their car and took a photograph with his phone, afterward telling someone that he got their licence plate number.
A speaker later called them "confused" and told the crowd to get close to the counter protesters if they returned, in order to scare them off, but not to "engage with them" if they come back because "we don’t want a fist fight." He did not comment on the person who had pushed her to the ground.
The People’s Party of Canada has been mired in controversy, with some calling the party far-right. A speaker on Saturday denied the charge outright.
On Friday provincial spokeswoman said they wouldn’t be able to clarify if there are plans to monitor rallies this weekend, but issued a warning to those who might attend them.
"We continue to take action against those who violate public health orders and remind Manitobans that enforcement officials will be out in full force this weekend," she said.
No enforcement officials were visible at the Saturday rally.
— with files from Malak Abas