Protests calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions made their way to Winnipeg Saturday.
Just over 100 people congregated at the Manitoba Legislative building for "A Rally For Freedom and Human Rights" hosted by a group calling itself Winnipeg Aware. The group is demanding lockdowns be lifted, saying there is no scientific basis for social distancing and "counterproductive to the development of the natural immune system," the group said in a press release.
Winnipeg Aware spokesperson Gerry Bohemier called for an end to COVID-19 vaccine development to the crowd, some of whom carried signage with slogans including "W.H.O. = China," "Stop the doctator" and "Go see hospitals are empty, practice fake news distancing."
"They want us to believe that they’re going to be waiting 18-20 months, or maybe even fast-tracking, a miracle vaccine," Bohemier said to a chorus of boos.
Bohemier, who has publicly criticized vaccines in the past, suggested the virus would "leave" by May, because "the sun starts to shine very high in the sky, and we start to expose our skin to a process that makes vitamin D."
"We don’t believe that a vaccine is necessary," he said. "Herd immunity is gotten by people who are healthy going out, being exposed to the virus, and then not getting sick and then being immune to that virus. And guess what? The season comes, we get sick, it goes away real quickly, two, three, months, and it’s gone."
Herd immunity involves exposing large groups to a virus gradually in hopes that people will develop a natural immunity. The practice is often utilized with the help of a vaccine – if enough people are vaccinated, the amount of unvaccinated people will be low enough that the virus will be unable to spread.
Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has cautioned people not to rely on herd immunity as the country reopens its doors, noting there is still not enough evidence to make an informed decision as to whether people who develop the virus and recover will become immune to being re-infected.
A spokesperson for Premier Brian Pallister said the province would "continue to act on the advice of health care experts and Manitoba’s chief public health officer in the fight against COVID-19."
A spokesperson for NDP leader Wab Kinew said the party had "decided not to comment on this story."
One provincial leader had a more direct message to protesters.
"If you want to protect yourself and your neighbours from possibly catching or passing on an illness that will result in a horrible, unnecessary death – wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a mask," Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont said in a statement to the Free Press.
"If you want people to die because you are a selfish, paranoid, and misinformed attention-seeker – wear a tinfoil hat. There are enough real problems in the world. There is no need to make up new ones."
A protester who asked not to be named said ending the lockdown was a human rights issue.
"I feel as though our rights are being infringed upon, and (I came) for my children and their future," she said.
She referred to having had to shut down her business and lay off more than 50 employees, something she believed shouldn’t have been necessary.
"The original model that they were using, (it) made sense to take precautions. But we quickly realized that model was incorrect, yet our government did not make changes to that. It continued to put people into social distancing, forced businesses to close, when we can clearly see that it wasn’t necessary."
Another protester, who carried a sign reading "COVID = Flu" and also asked not to be named, said he was here because of the effects he feared the lockdown would have on people with mental illnesses, who he said he worked with, should it continue.
"The isolation is hurting them, it’s really hurting them, and it’s gone beyond the point of being a good thing, it’s now become a really aggressive, harmful thing," he said.
He said while at the beginning the lockdown was warranted, the province now had a responsibility to begin the re-opening process.
Manitoba began phase one of its re-opening strategy last week, which included the re-opening of many retail businesses, dental clinics, hair salons and patios.
Despite this, public gatherings of more than ten people are still restricted. The City of Winnipeg has utilized Community Service Ambassadors to educate people on proper social distancing. If people do not disperse, bylaw officers can ticket people for fines up to $1,000 and up to six months imprisonment.
Protesters were able to congregate for over an hour without intervention. When asked why there had been no bylaw officers or community service ambassadors present asking protestors to disperse, Winnipeg Police Service public information officer Jay Murray said the police "was aware of the event and monitored it accordingly."
He then referred to other instances of protesters gathering without police intervention and said the WPS recognizes the right to peaceful assembly.
"The Winnipeg Police Service places an emphasis on ensuring all peaceful assemblies remain peaceful, and as such, that often dictates our response," he said.
On Thursday, Dr. Brent Roussin said while he recognized people’s right to protest, he cautioned against congregating in large groups.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Saturday, May 9, 2020 at 6:21 PM CDT: Edited
7:14 PM: Removes reference to Bohemier as a chiropractor. According to the Manitoba Chiropractors Association, Bohemier has not been a licensed doctor of chiropractic since 2002.