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Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen says the organizers of a recent hundreds-strong rally in Winkler against mandatory face mask rules in local schools made "some good points."
On Tuesday, a mask-less group of around 600 parents and children gathered in a closely-packed outdoor setting to voice opposition to Garden Valley School Division’s COVID-19 pandemic precautions, including mandated masks for students grades 4 and up, with doctor’s notes required for an exemption.
"My firm belief is that all directives related to mandatory mask-wearing in Canada are infringing on the rights of individual Canadians," organizer Heather DiFrancesco said in a presentation to GVSD board trustees while the rally took place outside.
"There are many parents who believe wearing a mask may cause psychological and physical harm to their children."
On Thursday, Friesen — who is also Tory MLA for Morden-Winkler — said he's met with some of his constituents "voicing their concerns" about face mask use in an educational setting.
"They're making some good points," he said.
For example, they're wondering why students aren't required to wear a mask if they're two metres apart but are if they're 1.7 metres apart and seated facing forward, he said.
"I think they're asking good questions... and they were seeking to comply and to be reasonable," the minister said, categorizing the demonstrators' interactions with the local school division as positive.
DiFrancesco and co-organizer Mandy Thiessen told board trustees Tuesday they had a petition signed by more than 1,200 parents, representing nearly 1,800 students in the division.
GVSD operates six schools in the city of Winkler (located roughly 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg), and seven rural schools (including one Hutterite colony school), with a student population of some 4,300.
As of Thursday morning, the Winkler district of the Southern Health region had no active COVID-19 cases, with 15 people recovered from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. However, the district announced its first COVID death: a man in his 40s with underlying health conditions, public health officials said.
Rally organizers told trustees the mandate had taken a student’s "best and second-best advocates," parents and teachers, out of the conversation.
"We find ourselves in a position where there are children in Winkler who are not thriving, and that should be a concern for everyone," Thiessen said.
Superintendent Todd Monster said in a statement the mandate comes from the province, and the school board is required to follow the province’s direction.
Meanwhile, Friesen reminded finger-waggers Thursday the Morden-Winkler area is not under "code orange" pandemic response restrictions mandating masks in public and limiting gathering sizes to 10 — unlike the metropolitan Winnipeg region.
"Dr. (Brent) Roussin has continued to say the degree of spread is less likely outdoors," Friesen said, deferring to the guidance of the chief provincial public health officer. "I was happy to see the rally was outdoors.
"I don't think it's a growing anti-mask surge that's happening there," the health minister said. "I would say to all Manitobans: we're in this together and COVID-19 is very real. We need to take precautions, and sometimes those precautions mean wearing masks."
However, there is an anti-mask movement in the province that needs to be addressed, said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
"There are lots of people in communities around Manitoba who think the virus is a hoax, who think that masks are a conspiracy," said Lamont, MLA for St. Boniface. "For people who think it's tyranny for people to say 'wear a mask,' we're actually trying to save lives.
"It makes a difference in whether you live or die or someone else lives or dies. We need to stop pretending that's not the case."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
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