Marginalized Edmontonians in need of masks, advocates say

Advocates are calling on governments and businesses to ensure impoverished Edmontonians have access to face masks after wearing them in public spaces became mandatory.

'We've done a great job servicing the middle class and we've left the marginalized out in the cold'

Edmonton's mandatory mask bylaw came into effect on August 1. (The Canadian Press)

Advocates are calling on the city, province and businesses to ensure marginalized Edmontonians have access to face masks.

As of Saturday, face masks or coverings are required in all indoor public spaces to help curb the spread of COVID-19. People who violate the bylaw could be fined $100. 

Social justice advocate Mark Cherrington said he's been inundated with texts and calls from people looking for masks, including single mothers and Edmontonians with mental health challenges.

"That's like 10 pop bottles for one mask for somebody that's homeless and has no income," said Cherrington, whose organization, the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, is accepting donations to supply masks.

On Sunday, a provincial program ended after distributing 40 million free masks in partnership with First Nations communities, places of worship, municipalities and businesses such as McDonalds and Tim Hortons.

But Cherrington said the people he helps often aren't welcome and face extra scrutiny in the businesses or transit stations where masks are handed out.

He hopes business owners — including many in support of the bylaw — will consider making a donation to his group or another agency such as Boyle Street Community Services, the Bissell Centre or iHuman. 

"I mean these masks are expensive and somebody has to pay for them," Cherrington said. "We've done a great job servicing the middle class and we've left the marginalized out in the cold."

Jibril Ibrahim, executive director of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society, said government officials should also make masks more available to Edmontonians newer to Canada and exercise restraint when issuing fines.

He said many families can't afford the additional expense of buying masks or the $100 ticket for not wearing one, on top of the economic hardship of the pandemic.

"A lot of people lost their jobs. They are struggling to make ends meet," Ibrahim said.

Some newer immigrants might not be aware of the bylaw yet because of language barriers and a failure to disseminate the information to those communities, Ibrahim warned. He urged officers to think twice before issuing a ticket.

"We have to take into consideration parents who have large families, who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet," Ibrahim said. "We don't want to make their lives more difficult."

Peace officers distributing masks

City spokesperson Geoffrey Driscoll said in June and July the city handed out a million masks.

"Still, not everyone has access to masks, so our officers will provide disposal masks to those who need them most," Driscoll wrote in an email to CBC News.

'The focus of this bylaw is education first. We will only use enforcement as a last resort option and only if needed. Our enforcement officers are playing a critical role in helping Edmontonians understand how and why to wear a face covering." 

The bylaw also allows people to use a cloth covering like a homemade mask, scarf or bandana that fully covers the nose, mouth, and chin and prevents the spread of respiratory droplets.