Police, businesses brace for duelling weekend protests over masks, COVID restrictions in Aylmer, Ont.

Ahead of a weekend anti-lockdown rally in Aylmer, Ont., the mayor has received threats for calling a state of emergency, police officers have drawn up a plan of response, and merchants are bracing for clashes between protesters and counter-protesters.

Some merchants are worried about clashes between protesters and counter-protesters

A family wearing masks walks by a row of Muskoka chairs in downtown Aylmer, Ont., on Tuesday. (Colin Butler/CBC)

The Town of Aylmer is bracing for an anti-lockdown rally planned for the weekend and for a counter-protest, which some fear will lead to clashes in the small southwestern Ontario town. 

The mayor of the community just under 200 kilometres southwest of Toronto in Elgin County declared a state of emergency earlier this week, as plans for the so-called Freedom Rally ramped up.

The organizer of the rally, Kimberly Neudorf, has refused police requests to suspend her gathering, which urges the government to lift public health measures that she and others feel restrict business and other facets of normal life. 

"We have been working with the organizer, trying to persuade her that this is not good for the community, it's not good for Aylmer, it's not good for businesses — they're impacted by this — but so far we've had no luck in convincing her otherwise," said police Chief Zvonko Horvat. 

"People have the right for freedom of assembly under the Constitution." 

Horvat said he is working with municipal officials and the Ontario Provincial Police to put together a response plan, depending on what happens on Saturday. 

The organizer's husband, Terry Neudorf, told CBC News he hopes Saturday's gathering is peaceful. 

"There's passion on both sides, and for the most part, it's been quite civil. Certainly our first freedom march was very peaceful and civil and there was very little opposition," Neudorf said. "The chief is obviously concerned about public safety, as are we. Most people recognize that our rights to protest are protected." 

Merchants concerned about rallies, business

The first such rally, held in October, brought out a large crowd that listened to speeches. There were no counter-protesters. 

But as word about the next rally has spread, so have rumours that people from inside and outside the community will be there to counter-protest. That has merchants on edge, said Jamie Chapman, a hair salon owner and the president of the Aylmer Chamber of Commerce. 

On Monday, Aylmer declared a state of emergency after officials learned two counter-demonstrations over masks would be taking place at the community's arena simultaneously. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"The merchants are concerned because people are afraid that we're not following public health protocols here, and we do follow them," Chapman said. 

"The first rally was peaceful and I hope that happens again. It's frustrating. We have to keep reminding people that we are a lovely community, we follow the protocols just like everyone else, and we are still open for business. Hopefully, after Saturday, things will return to normal and we can move on." 

The mayor has reported being threatened after she declared the state of emergency. Horvat told CBC News that at this time, there's not enough evidence to lay criminal charges. 

But he said police officers are monitoring the possible counter-protesters who may come into the community and following their plans on social media. Officers will be watching the Saturday protest and counter-protest crowds closely and will lay charges if necessary, Horvat said. 

"Anyone who chooses to participate, I ask you to do it peacefully, lawfully, and that you're not breaching any current emergency orders," he said. "We will gather evidence and if there is evidence that supports laying charges, we will look at that option." 

'Be peaceful, civil and polite'

Terry Neudorf said the ultimate goal of the march is not against mask mandates, but rather about Canadian freedoms being eroded through encroaching public health measures. 

"We all know that's how governments advance tyranny, through states of emergency, so it came as no surprise that the town would move to have that kind of declaration," Neudorf said. "This march continues to be about freedom." 

Participants have been asked to be "civil, peaceful and polite," he said. 

"No one wants to see businesses suffer. We have friends who have businesses in town," Neudorf said. "This is a call for people to make their own call about masks, and for merchants to respect that." 

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