Protesters decrying COVID-19 vaccine requirements gathered at the Manitoba legislature and Winnipeg city hall on Monday after a demonstration intended for the province’s largest hospital was moved in response to widespread criticism.
Approximately 200 people attended the rally, which began on the grounds of the legislature at about 2 p.m. The group then held a vigil meant for people affected by COVID-19 public health measures, according to organizers.
The crowd later moved down Broadway and Main Street — with Winnipeg police controlling traffic — to city hall, where they stood again in near silence for 30 minutes, holding flowers and signs that read "My body, my choice," "Taking back our freedoms" and "Stop vaccine passports."
A single counter-protester, dressed as the Grim Reaper and holding a scythe, stood on a nearby ledge observing the crowd.
The rally was held in conjunction with events staged outside hospitals across Canada, organized by a group called Canadian Frontline Nurses. The group is not affiliated nor endorsed by any professional nursing associations.
Monday’s protest was first scheduled to occur outside the Health Sciences Centre, where earlier this month a couple of hundred demonstrators protested vaccination mandates on the east side of the campus, slowing traffic and hindering people who were trying to access the facility.
Shaun Zimmer, who spoke at the event and helped organize the rally, said the decision to relocate the protest away from the hospital was done "with everybody’s best interest at heart."
Zimmer said he was not involved in the organization of the protest held earlier in September.
"The venue changed because we heard feedback on the negative impacts that it had on the hospital last time," Zimmer said. "We want to make sure that we’re not causing any more divide — unlike many individuals (who) do — so we changed it to accommodate for that."
Leading up to Monday’s demonstrations, politicians, hospital-system leaders and nursing associations across the country denounced the protests planned outside hospitals.
While Canadians have a right to protest peacefully, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said he was disgusted by, and condemned, any attempt to intimidate or interfere with access to health-care services.
"Our health-care heroes, and the patients they serve, should never be subjected to the kind of treatment that they received during the last protest," Bowman said in a thread of tweets Monday.
A handful of demonstrators did show up at the hospital on Monday afternoon in search of the protest, before making their way to the legislature.
A spokesman for Shared Health, which oversees operations of the Health Sciences Centre, said the hospital was forced to take precautionary measures "to protect the safety of our staff, patients and visitors" in anticipation of a rally.
"We strongly urge demonstrators to protest in a peaceful manner that does not disrespect the efforts of health-care workers over the past 18 months and which in no way impedes access to patients seeking medical care," the spokesman said in a statement.
Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer also weighed in on the demonstration on Monday.
"My message is the gratitude and respect I have for the frontline health-care workers who have been at this for 18 months, working overtime, there for Manitobans when we need them the most," Dr. Brent Roussin said.
"It's taking a toll on them personally, and so I don't see the connection of any protest that interferes with the great work that they're doing," he continued, adding Manitobans have a right to protest the province's public health response.
Outside city hall, Zimmer said more demonstrations should be expected through September, this time with a focus on vaccination policies in schools.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.