Anti-maskers frustrate The Forks on 'difficult day' that shut down marketplace

Exasperated officials at The Forks in Winnipeg plan to meet with public health officials after a rally by hundreds of anti-maskers prompted the market to lock up its doors on the weekend.

'This isn't something we want to have to continue to deal with'

Hundreds of people gather at The Forks for an anti-mask rally on April 17. Many of them returned April 25 for another gathering to protest Manitoba's public health restrictions. (CBC)

Exasperated officials at The Forks in Winnipeg plan to meet with public health officials after a rally by hundreds of anti-maskers prompted the market to lock up its doors on the weekend.

The gathering started at the CN event stage Saturday afternoon with a mass of people carrying signs that said things like "Unmask our kids now" and "Hugs over masks." They listened to a number of speakers railing against public health orders put in place to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

When word spread that the group intended to march through the indoor market, Forks officials made a decision to shut down.

Clare MacKay, vice-president of strategic initiatives at The Forks, said that would have put people at risk and in line for possible confrontations.

"Most of these are mom-and-pop operations. There are 16-year-old kids working in a lot of these kiosks. We didn't want to put our team [and tenants] in that position," she said.

The Forks is not equipped to enforce public health guidelines for events of that size, she said, but she wouldn't comment on what "could or should" have been done by police or the city to prevent the rally from taking place.

It had been known about for some time as it was part of an Ontario activist's "Freedom Convoy" that is going across Canada. It followed on the heels of a similar event one week earlier at the same location.

"We'll regroup with our city and provincial public health officials and have a conversation about, if things like this continue, what can we expect, what can we put in place," MacKay said.

"We'll be working really closely … to discuss how we can look at this going forward. We want to be really clear that this isn't something we want to have to continue to deal with."

The Forks is known as "the city's meeting place," with many rallies, vigils and special gatherings typically held every year. But since the COVID-19 pandemic started that has not been the case due to public health orders prohibiting crowds.

"Right now there are rules in place that mean that we can't be that for anybody. We aren't an event space right now," MacKay said.

Current gathering sizes are limited to 10 people outdoors in Manitoba.

"So it was a difficult day, in terms of who we normally are," MacKay said.

The Forks posted a message on its social media channels about the closure and made it clear it did not condone the event. That was done after a number of people contacted The Forks to complain or ask why they were permitting the gathering, MacKay said.

"We're doing our utmost to stay as current and on the side of all of those public health guidelines so that we can be the city's meeting place again," she said.

"Our tenants have gone through a really rough year, we've gone through a really rough year. We're just trying to hang on and … come out on the other side of this."

Vaccine task force lead, premier respond

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba's COVID-19 vaccine implementation task force, was asked about the rally and focused her answer around the anti-mask message the group was promoting.

"Masks are one of those ways that we can protect each other. It's not a perfect way and it's certainly uncomfortable," she said.

"I want to do everything that I possibly can to protect the people around me, and so for me, a mask is a relatively easy way to do that.

"I certainly appreciate that people don't like being told what to do. Nobody likes being told what to do. But this is something that we can do fairly easily and it really does reduce transmission."

Premier Brian Pallister says he thinks tickets were issued at rally, but didn't have details of how many.

He says enforcement is a concern and it needs to increased.

"I've made that position clear, and we'll be looking at additional enforcement in malls, in big box stores, as well as at recreational events, most certainly at these types of events like the one at The Forks yesterday, there has to be enforcement there," Pallister said.

"We've seen violations of public health orders too many times and there needs to be consequences there because most of us are doing the right things and we need all of us to do the right things."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Rachel Bergen