Manitoba

Police chief calls for end to 'anger and resentment' as Winkler roils with hostility to pandemic rules

A police chief says his southern Manitoba city with a low vaccination rate is being torn apart by animosity.

'Drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful to law enforcement,' says Chief Ryan Hunt

The head of Winkler Police Service wants to put an end to the hostility in the southern Manitoba city. (Jeremie Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

A police chief says his southern Manitoba city — which has a vaccination rate well below the provincial average — is being torn apart by animosity.

In a Facebook plea for civility, Winkler police Chief Ryan Hunt wrote his community is better than the hostility taking hold in response to the provincial public health orders.

Hunt took aim at residents who say they'll interfere with officials trying to enforce the rules, which range from mask mandates to proof-of-vaccination cards. He said he's dismayed that "drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful to law enforcement" than people who decide not to wear a mask.

"Something has to change. The anger and resentment that we are seeing in our community are unacceptable. We are better than this," he wrote in a Facebook post published last Saturday.

"This great community did not become great by acting the way we currently are."

He said the anger is coming from people who support public health orders, and those who do not. 

Hunt lamented that store staff, particularly young people, are facing vitriol for telling people to wear a face covering.

"To get mad at the young staff members is just … well, it's just ridiculous. I don't think that is what Jesus would do."

The dissent over pandemic restrictions is being felt especially in Winkler, a city of 12,000-plus with a vaccination rate of 40.8 per cent — well below the provincial average. In the rural municipality of Stanley, which surrounds Winkler, three-quarters of eligible residents have not yet been vaccinated.

Hundreds of people have attended protests against pandemic restrictions. City council was asked to deem Winkler a "sanctuary city" that would exempt it from the public health orders.

Recently, a man tried to drive a woman off the road after she snapped pictures of people not wearing masks in a store, police reported.

'We're better than this'

Hunt said he felt compelled to write his letter because the dissension in Winkler has become overbearing.

"The last few weeks here, it's just escalated to the point where I felt it needed to get out," he told CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos on Monday.  

He knows Winkler to be a great community, he said. 

"There's good, smart people, generous people — and we're better than this."

Winkler has a vaccination rate of 40.8 per cent, as of Monday. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

In his plea, Hunt challenged opponents of the pandemic restrictions who argue their rights are being infringed upon. 

"We already live with laws that restrict what we can do. COVID restrictions are intended to protect, not punish," he wrote.

The people choosing to ignore public health restrictions run the risk of receiving a ticket, Hunt said, and they shouldn't be angry if they get caught.

He added the government has the right to limit freedoms during a public health crisis.

"Some of us are neglecting our new responsibilities under these adverse conditions. We have become an entitled society that cannot handle the fact that we do not currently have the same freedoms we have become accustomed to," he wrote.

He criticized a social media group vowing to make Winkler a community where people have "freedom of choice," which, he said, discounts the people harmed by their non-compliance.

"Referring to people as 'ignorant' on social media or driving around town with a life-size stuffed toy sheep wearing a mask in the passenger seat does not help to bring the community together," he said.

He also warned that any attempt to hinder enforcement officials may result in an arrest. 

Residents digging in their heels

A Winkler business owner said people in the community can dig in their heels. 

Zachary Hildebrand, owner of Whitecap Coffee, said community members are firm in their opinions and cannot be easily swayed. (Radio-Canada)

"I think one of the realities of our community is that there's many people with very strong convictions and people who believe things very passionately and firmly, and we see people who have these convictions on both sides of the issues that we're facing right now," said Zachary Hildebrand.

Hildebrand, owner of Whitecap Coffee, said he closed indoor dining so he didn't have to deny service to, presumably, more than half of his customers. 

"If my goal is to support people as best I can, I didn't see how I could turn that many people away and still maintain the culture that I was looking for in my business."

Martin Harder, the city's mayor, said anybody hassling business staff must tone it down. 

People can disagree with the public health orders and the government's handling of the pandemic, "but we don't have the right to disobey the laws that are there."

"People are so, so determined that whatever they're saying is right and there's no room to consider what somebody else is saying. It's just simply wrong. It's not what the city of Winkler is about," he said. 

"The city of Winkler is about working together."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files by Jeremie Bergeron

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