Anti-mask protests show need for better public health messaging, Calgary researcher says

Hundreds marched through downtown Calgary on Saturday to protest against masks and public health measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the same day record high number new cases and hospitalizations were reported in the province.

Empathy and clear messaging are key — but enforcement needed when messaging fails, Dr. Sajjad Fazel says

This was one of the few masks seen at a rally against mandatory masking and other public health measures in Calgary on Saturday. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Hundreds marched through downtown Calgary on Saturday to protest against mandated masks and other public health measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the same day record highs in new cases and hospitalizations were reported in the province.

The protests, or "Walk for Freedom," have been a weekly occurrence in the city and across the country for months, but Saturday was the first since the province's 10-person limit on outdoor gatherings was announced on Tuesday.

"To see that there is a group of people in the Canadian population that is against masking, and to say that it infringes on their freedom, is taking the word out of context — it's actually an insult on all those civil rights heroes who fought for freedom," said Dr. Sajjad Fazel, a public health researcher at the University of Calgary.

"When we look at the word freedom, we're talking about when people's rights are taken away … you're not allowed to drink and drive without any consequences, right? Everything has a consequence … when it's for the public good, the scenario changes."

Fazel is part of a team of researchers and scientists studying COVID-19 misinformation to provide recommendations as to how it can be addressed. 

Some signs at Saturday's protest expressed misinformation, saying vaccines can alter DNA or that masks cause bacterial or fungal infections. Others expressed economic concerns, or anger at the federal or provincial government. Members of at least two far-right or white supremacist groups were also seen in attendance. 

Fazel said anti-mask protests show the need for clearer public health messaging — and he said empathy is an important tool when having these conversations about science and health.

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He suggests more conversation can help people understand the roots behind concerns, whether it's a small business owner worried about their livelihood or someone with anti-government sentiment frustrated by mixed messages.

"Misinformation isn't just lies, it's a mix of truth and lies mixed up together," Fazel said. "One thing that I always tell people is don't look at what one particular doctor, scientist, researcher sees, but look at what the overall body of science and literature is."

One of those in attendance at Saturday's protest, lawyer Doris Reimer, said she was there to make sure Canadians know what their rights are.

"They're violating our human rights over and over and over again — they're bombarding us with mandates left right and centre, and it's unbelievable," Reimer said. 

Reimer said she doesn't know what the province's latest enforcement measures include, but said the restrictions are pitting families against each other.

The new restrictions include a ban on indoor social gatherings, limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people and moving Grades 7-12 students to online learning until winter break. 

Most businesses can remain open, subject to capacity rules, and masks are mandatory inside workplaces in Calgary and Edmonton. 

Protester Charles Haskett said he's concerned the government could use a heavy-handed approach to fines as an income source. Those who break the rules could be subject to a $1,000 fine and up to $100,000 through the courts. 

"I don't see the value in condemning people and publicly shaming them and fining them for expressing our opinions," Haskett said.

No protesters ticketed

No tickets were handed out at Saturday's protest, but police say they are considering a plan for strategic enforcement going forward. 

In a release issued Sunday, police said their primary objective is to ask for voluntary compliance and to educate the public on the restrictions.

"With that said, participants in these events are being investigated. Our ticketing is strategic and will take into consideration a number of factors," police said in a release. "Although citizens may not witness the summons at the time, that does not necessarily mean we are not exploring those options.

"We know this is a difficult time right now and we will use discretion as we do in many aspects of our job."

In Ontario on Thursday, two police services announced charges related to anti-mask "freedom" rallies.

Haskett said he's been happy with how Alberta's government has responded to the pandemic but he doesn't believe mandatory masking or lockdowns are the correct response. He fears those types of restrictions could put vulnerable people, especially those with mental illness, at risk.

Haskett also said he's concerned with a lack of transparency and inconsistency in messaging, and said it has led to his faith being shaken in the federal government and the media.

That's something Fazel also said has been a problem.

"I think the government, really both provincial and federal, need to invest heavily on tailored and targeted public health messages," he said.

"I'm sorry to say this, but it doesn't help to have politicians and political leaders who aren't adhering to public health recommendations, who aren't supporting public health recommendations fully … that further steels people's belief in [misinformation]."

Beyond conversation, Fazel said enforcement of restrictions also remains an important tool —especially as the second wave builds.

"Definitely having people with no masks congregating on the streets doesn't help anybody. In fact, it does lead to outbreaks and cases increasing," Fazel said.

"It's just like when somebody is drunk driving, there [are] some consequences. And I believe there need to be consequences for breaking public health orders, especially at this scale. 

Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Friday that police have independence to make some determinations as to how to enforce health measures, but that he expects those who violate health measures will be held accountable. 


  • An earlier version of this article referred to one of the protesters as Chris Haskett. In fact, his name is Charles Haskett.
    Nov 29, 2020 1:42 PM MT

With files from Helen Pike