RM OF STANLEY — On Highway 3, between Morden and Winkler, a large sign catches a driver's eye.
It sports a giant cutout of a needle in bright red with the word "experimental" on it, with rotating messages including "Know Jesus, know peace" and "#Clotshot". The words are different but they all intend to send the same message: don’t trust COVID-19 vaccines.
The sign stands tall on a plot of land in the Rural Municipality of Stanley, owned by Coun. Alfred "Bitz" Loewen, maps from the municipality’s government office confirmed.
Welcome to anti-vaxxer country, where COVID-19 immunization rates are the lowest in the province — but no one wants to talk about it.
Loewen, Stanley Reeve Morris Olafson and the remainder of council would not speak to the Free Press despite repeated requests for comment.
On a recent Friday in Winkler, people at an area park were hesitant to talk to a reporter about the sign and what it represents.
"It does make me feel a little uncomfortable, because there's the idea that even if there was only one person that put up a sign, that other people share that opinion," said a woman at the park, who asked not to be identified.
"And it’s kind of a reminder of like, ‘Oh, I might not be as safe as I think I am.’ Because people around me are not wanting to follow safety protocols and not wanting to get vaccinated and they feel that it's like a government conspiracy or whatever they’re thinking."
“It does make me feel a little uncomfortable, because there's the idea that even if there was only one person that put up a sign, that other people share that opinion."
The Southern health region has long had the lowest vaccination rates in Manitoba. The RM of Stanley and Winkler have the two lowest rates in the province, with 21.8 per cent and 38.3 per cent of eligible Manitobans with at least one COVID-19 dose respectively.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder, who has been outspoken about the COVID-19 divide in his community, called any signs spreading divisive rhetoric "disappointing."
Signage about COVID-19 has cropped up in southern Manitoba throughout the pandemic. Some have been anti-lockdown, while others criticized the current method of treating the virus. Signs that read "Only God can stop a virus" and "Ivermectin treats COVID-19" have been erected (Ivermectin is a drug being tested in clinical trials, with evidence of its ability to treat COVID-19 called "inconclusive" by the World Health Organization).
Henry Siemens, operator of the Winkler branch of signage creation company Magnetsigns, said it’s a unique time to be the decider of which messages reach the community — and which don’t.
"We've been in this (business) for quite a few years, and I can count on one hand prior to this year, how many times we've had somebody call and have a concern about a sign," said the longtime Winkler resident. "And it seems to be a fairly regular occurrence nowadays."
Siemens said many of the calls are from residents concerned about homemade signs, adding he wouldn’t comment on the sign on Loewen’s land.
However, he acknowledged the company had to take down at least one sign it originally approved: it advertised Ivermectin as a suitable treatment for COVID-19, with a URL where people could get more information.
"That one, we had up for a couple of weeks and quickly recognized that that was an inappropriate message in terms of how it was being received," he said.
"When we had our staff taking a look at it, we dove into the URL, and it seemed to be respectfully putting information and a counter argument forward... our public quickly told us that that was not the case, that they didn't feel comfortable with that information being shared, so it came down very quickly."
The company has requests from all sides of the debate around COVID-19 to put up signs that are aggressive or inappropriate.
"It's from the (requests saying), 'I want to put an angry message out, masks are bad,' or ‘I want to put an angry message out saying, 'You inbred, put on your mask,'" he said.
"We've been in this (business) for quite a few years, and I can count on one hand prior to this year, how many times we've had somebody call and have a concern about a sign... And it seems to be a fairly regular occurrence nowadays.” — Henry Siemens, of signage creation company Magnetsigns
As a result, the company has used policy to weed out possibly offensive signage: if a client is not willing to publicly own their own sign, the conversation often ends there.
"At times even something very, very benign (is controversial). We had some signs out that said, 'Please stay six feet apart.' It was polite, it was, we thought, nothing really controversial. But we had vandalism on the signs, literally, almost daily..."
It’s a difficult situation overall for Siemens, both as a business owner and longtime resident in the area.
"I believe very strongly that people should be able to speak their mind, you can agree or disagree with me, you should have the freedom to speak it. But by that same token, it should be both sides of that opportunity," he said.
"We're getting the feeling a lot of the time that either one side or the other wants to silence the other side."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.