Dozens of people gathered in front of Steinbach’s city hall Saturday afternoon to protest code-red restrictions. The group known as Hugs Over Masks set up loudspeakers on the steps and had signs with messages that included "Faith is Essential," "The Media is the Virus" and "Lockdown is About Control."
RCMP vehicles set up blockades on Reimer Avenue, and officers stood near the barricades watching the event unfold.
The largely maskless crowd of more than 70 people listened and cheered from the sidewalk or from across the street. They held up signs calling for an end to the lockdown or the opening of small businesses. One woman yelled at reporters to "write the truth," and the crowd often huddled around reporters doing interviews but were generally non-threatening.
Church of God Restoration minister Tobias Tissen, who has been ticketed multiple times for breaking restrictions at anti-mask rallies, stood in front of the crowd in his tidy black coat and delivered a religious sermon to the crowd.
He decried the shutdown of churches and said the right response to COVID-19 would have been to call for "fervent prayer" from all churches.
Tissen aimed some of his criticism at Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. He also called out Michael Forian, press secretary to Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, for having travelled outside the country during the pandemic.
A former member of his congregation recently accused Tissen of using these anti-mask demonstrations as means of increasing his flock. Tissen refused to speak directly to the Free Press.
At one point during Tissen’s speech, a masked man yelled out twice, "How many people have to die?"
Tissen briefly stopped his speech and said to the man, "I’m sorry, but you’re not a Christian."
The man, James Loewen, soon after ended up in a heated exchange with a man wearing a Hugs Over Masks shirt and a Stars and Stripes "Make America Great Again" hat. Two RCMP officers moved nearby to monitor the conflict.
"This is so embarrassing for this town," said Loewen, after the argument. "And I get so riled up, I wanted to come in here and try to have a little bit of a conversation and just see where they’re coming from."
Loewen said he was particularly agitated because of his experience with COVID-19. "The apartment building I’m going to, three people have died from coronavirus. Three or four have been hospitalized because of it."
One organizer, who would only identify herself as Shannon, said despite the name, "Hugs Over Masks is not an anti-mask group." She said the group aims to protest restrictions it believes infringes on personal rights and causes unnecessary harm to mental health. At one point, she did ask protesters to try to stay six feet apart from each other, but this advice was to mostly ignored.
Another protester, Patrick Allard, also railed against the restrictions. "We need to get the government off our back with these regulations. We need to get back to normal."
Allard said he’s been ticketed five times at $1,296 each, totalling $6,480.
He’s already begun fighting his first tickets, he said, and will continue to fight them as they come. "It doesn’t matter if it’s one dollar or a million dollars," he said. "For me to stop — even arresting me won’t stop (me). They’d have to kill me."
RCMP ticketed Allard again Saturday, along with at least three others.
Across the street from the rally, two women wearing masks stood outside an apartment building watching the rally.
"I think it’s terribly disrespectful to our elders, and to everyone," said Jennifer Cook, who lives in the building. "We’re trying to make sure that we keep it so people can eventually come out. And I think it’s just ridiculous."
The other woman, Monica Barber, also lives in the building across from the protest.
"I just think it’s not right that the churches are promoting this," she said. "Well, a certain church."
RCMP did not respond to requests for the exact number of tickets issued by the time of publication.