Manitoba

Pandemic protesters try making leap to politics in Manitoba's civic, school board races

Fierce opposition to COVID-19 measures is reverberating through Manitoba's upcoming municipal and school board elections. 

Candidates stress there's more to their candidacy than opposition to pandemic measures

Todd McDougall, one of the most ardent critics of Manitoba's pandemic restrictions, is taking his shot at politics with his bid to become a school trustee, but he says voters shouldn't think of him as only a one-issue candidate. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Fierce opposition to COVID-19 measures is reverberating through Manitoba's upcoming municipal and school board elections. 

It's believed at least a dozen people on ballots in October are vocal critics of pandemic-era restrictions, some of whom gained widespread notoriety for their dissent.

Dick Eastland said running for a school board seat wasn't something he seriously considered before the pandemic. He said discussions with others who rallied against the restrictions and vaccine mandates changed his mind.

"We have been talking about this a lot privately from person-to-person and trying to inspire each other, to show some strength," he said.

"For a lot of people, they're getting completely out of their comfort zone."

Dick Eastland said too many school trustees hold the same views and he's running for office to present a common-sense perspective. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

This includes Eastland, whose own kids are out of school.

"There's no reason for me to do this, except that I strongly believe that a lot of people felt helpless when it came to masking their children or vaccinating them."

Eastland, who is looking to represent Ward 1 in the Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg, argues the current trustees are too willing to go along with the crowd rather than thinking for themselves. He wouldn't be afraid to chart his own path, he said.

"My reputation isn't at stake here," Eastland said. "Me battling for families that are maybe getting run over by the machine, so to speak, that's who I'm here for."

Karl Krebs, who failed to turn Winkler, Man., into a sanctuary city immune from pandemic restrictions, actively encouraged like-minded people to run for office.

He told a restaurant full of his supporters in August that if enough of their people run, "this will be a memorable moment in the history book of Manitoba," an online video shows. 

He's one of two people seeking to become mayor of the Winkler. Krebs will face Henry Siemens, a longtime councillor.

Karl Krebs, organizer of the Things That Matter movement that has fought against pandemic restrictions, is running to be mayor of Winkler. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

In an interview on Friday, Krebs said he hopes his own decision to seek office, and subsequent appeals to others, had the desired effect.

"We're all in this to bring about change that will bring us back to where we were," Krebs said. "Nobody is looking for a different community other than the one that we had two years ago, and that's what's been affected. We've seen the effects of mandates on businesses. We've seen the effects of promoting medical choices that people are not comfortable making."

Krebs said one person he encouraged to run is his "good friend" Don Bouchard, who's challenging councillor Jim Funk to serve as reeve of the RM of Hanover. 

Bouchard attended rallies with convoy protest supporters where he's done ministry and performed baptisms.

He said what's broken in society is this tendency to believe there's only one opinion, and other perspectives are wrong.

"People are allowed to be angry. They're allowed to think differently. And if I'm offended, I have the problem."

'If I do get elected ... things could happen'

Angela Anderson Johnson, who is among nine nominees vying for a single seat in Ward 5 of the Winnipeg School Division board, said she's been branded online as an opponent of COVID measures and she's been bombarded with critical comments since her name was listed on the ballot.

She said those remarks have empowered her.

"I can go to all the rallies and listen to them ... but it's not doing anything, right? Nothing's changing. So I think if I do get elected to be a school trustee, I think things could happen."

Four people, three men and one woman, stand in front of a large office building with hands holding microphones and cellphones in the foreground.
From left to right, Gerald Bohemier, Todd McDougall, Patrick Allard and Sharon Vickner, along with co-defendant Tobias Tissen, all received fines ranging from more than $14,200 to nearly $35,000 for violating pandemic health restrictions. (CBC)

Todd McDougall is one of the five people convicted this summer for repeatedly violating COVID-19 public health orders. He said he used to be a member of the Proud Boys and the local group, which has since dissolved, had no connection to the radicalism in the United States.

McDougall knows he's garnered a reputation for his views on COVID-19, but said he doesn't want voters in Ward 2 of the Pembina Trails School Division to "pigeonhole" him as a one-issue candidate. Three of the four hopefuls in that race will be elected.

He wants discussions with voters to be about "what's happening in education right now," McDougall said.

He hopes people afford that same opportunity to all candidates that may be portrayed as having fringe views.

Like him, Patrick Allard, who was also charged in court for flouting pandemic rules, wants more transparency on school board decisions and more opportunities for parents to have their say.

Allard is one of three people vying to become a trustee in Ward 8 in the Winnipeg School Division.

Patrick Allard, an opponent of COVID-19 restrictions who has been fined because he hasn't adhered to public health orders, encourages people of varying viewpoints to seek public office. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

He's happily encouraged people to run for office on social media, he said, but denies targeting a certain group of anti-mandate protesters with his messaging. If you're frustrated with those in public office, you should get involved, he said.

"I was always told when I was young, 'If you don't like the laws, run for office and change them.'"

Christopher Adams, an adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said the path from protests to politics is well-travelled, no matter which end of the political spectrum they occupy.

"I think many people [who protested COVID measures] "got a taste of how enjoyable it was to be part of the media spotlight and to be in groups talking about issues of importance to them," Adams said.

"It's not surprising that these individuals would come forward and be part of a local campaign," Adams said.

He added some of these candidates may not seriously think they can win. Meanwhile, those individuals hoping to gain power may have a better shot at school board elections, since they don't generally garner much attention and any incumbents do not have much name recognition. 

Election day is on Oct. 26.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Jenn Allen

now