VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A crowd of 1,000 unmasked people stood shoulder-to-shoulder chanting in downtown Vancouver Saturday for the “B.C. Freedom Mega Rally” — an event one Vancouver councillor describes as “incredibly reckless.”
The estimate of the crowd size comes from the Vancouver Police Department, which reported “no major incidents.”
Saturday’s demonstration was the first of two planned over the weekend. Posters and social media descriptions of the event describe it as a protest against “censorship, lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, quarantines, travel bans, social distancing, contact tracing, and government orders.”
Coun. Pete Fry says the gathering is dangerous, and not only because it flouts public health advice in the midst of a global pandemic, and on the cusp of a second wave of the virus here in B.C.
“We were aware that it was coming, and it was scheduled and it was attracting a number of far-right conspiracy theorists and xenophobic and racist types,” he explains.
“It’s a bit of a motley crew of who’s attending this. At the core is sort of this anti-mask piece but there’s a lot more being put on display here by this group. It’s certainly worrisome. Folks are scared and frustrated and it’s understandable of course. But there are bad actors here who are taking advantage of those fears, and really propelling a very dangerous and negative narrative that isn’t helpful and that’s probably going to get people hurt.”
Fry notes that a crowd of people saying they were headed to the rally boarded a ferry where they reportedly harassed and threatened staff and travellers. Vancouver police officers were at the art gallery, and directed traffic during the subsequent parch.
“It puts a lot of our frontline workers at risk,” he says.
“I’m not at all impressed with what’s going on today with this rally. Do not attend rallies where far-right conspiracy theories are being espoused and people are saying that this is a hoax, because I can assure that it is not a hoax.”
Fry says police and bylaw officers can’t clamp down on a protest without direction from the province’s public health officials. B.C.’s top doctor has issued Public Health Orders restricting gatherings, and party-organizers have been slapped with fines of up to $2,300. However, there is nothing in place to limit or curb protests amid the pandemic.
“We do have freedom of speech in this country but really only at the point where it becomes a public health risk would we have to intervene, and that may happen,” Fry says,
Video posted to Facebook shows a speaker inviting the crowd to cheer for a “convoy” that originated in Saskatoon and apparently gathered supporters from Alberta and Kelowna, among other places on the way to Vancouver.
An open letter from the Vancouver District Labour Council says this weekend’s events use the guise of COVID-19 to “coalesce formerly disparate fringe groups.”
“We are particularly alarmed to find out that an alliance of conspiracy believers, anti-vaxxers, white supremacists and neo-Nazis is planning a major two-day event in Vancouver October 17 and 18 which will include the arrival of a convoy of such extremists coming from Saskatchewan and Alberta,” it reads.
The letter goes on to point out that organizing a counter-protest is not currently a safe option.
“In other times and places, it might be appropriate to mobilize the community in non-violent opposition to their bigotry and hate,” it continues.
“But we recognize the irony of confronting in-person COVID deniers who oppose and refuse to abide by common sense public health measures. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we not remain silent in the face of the danger this phenomenon creates now and as when we emerge from the ongoing crisis.”