Enforcement at anti-mask rallies is a balancing act, former officer says

Despite the issuance of public health orders, Calgary has seen multiple anti-mask rallies over the past several weeks — and another is scheduled to take place this weekend.

Another anti-mask rally planned for Calgary this weekend despite public health orders

Crowds gathered in downtown Calgary in late November at an anti-mask rally. Another rally is scheduled to be held this weekend. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Despite the issuance of public health orders, Calgary has seen multiple anti-mask rallies over the past several weeks — and another is scheduled to take place this weekend.

Although protestors have been disobeying health orders, police and bylaw officers have issued a total of 18 tickets for violations against the Alberta Public Health Act since Nov. 24.

That number represents only a handful of the hundreds who have marched through the streets of Calgary to protest against mandated masks — and a public security expert and former cop has an idea why.

"In these very political types of situations, officers are often bound by what direction they're given by the chief," said Chris Butler, retired CPS inspector.

Butler said the one thing officers never want to allow to happen is for enforcement by officers to become the issue.

"That's what protestors are looking for, quite frankly," Butler said. "A lot of these anti-mask protestors are — not all of them but a lot of them — are wanting the police to step in during the protest to attempt enforcement, in order to turn the whole messaging and the whole rhetoric into an anti-law enforcement type of message."

Police seeking voluntary compliance

In a statement, a spokesperson with Calgary police said officers will monitor this weekend's anti-mask protest to ensure the event remains peaceful.

"We will make every effort to play our part in enforcement. However, our primary objective is to seek voluntary compliance from the public with respect to the restrictions," the statement reads. 

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

The Alberta government declared a state of public health emergency on Nov. 24, along with new restrictions. At that time, Premier Jason Kenney said peace officers or police could fine those who break the restrictions $1,000 per ticketed offence and up to $100,000 in the courts.

Chris Butler, who was a law enforcement officer for 34 years, is pictured in a file photo during his time with Calgary police. Butler, who is now CEO of Raptor Protection and Safety Services, says enforcement at anti-mask rallies requires a difficult balance. (CBC)

Butler said it may appear to the public that officers are not enforcing public health orders and instead standing back and letting protests go forward — but that isn't necessarily the case.

"Enforcement will often look dramatically different than it does in any other type of situation. There's going to be a high degree of surveillance that's going to be transparent to the public," he said.

"There's going to be a lot of undercover work probably that's being done. Identification of offenders will frequently take place after the incident is over, and the enforcement action will take place afterwards."

Despite that, Butler said he understands the pressure to enforce, and expects given recent messaging that more visible enforcement will take place when safe and appropriate.

"It goes back to that old adage, that justice doesn't just need to be done, it needs to be seen to be done," he said. "The public needs to see that. They need to understand that the police are not just standing back doing nothing, but actually enforcing the law."

With files from Elise von Scheel.


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