Hundreds in Steinbach protest vaccine, mask mandates in schools
'We need people fighting for freedom,' organizer says to crowd outside Hanover School Division
About 300 people gathered outside a school division office in Steinbach, Man., on Monday to protest the provincial requirement for students and staff to wear masks and for school employees to be vaccinated this fall.
Organizer Sheena Friesen and others gathered on the lawn of the Hanover School Division office to call on the division to reject the provincial mandates that come into effect Friday, days before students head back to school.
"We need people fighting for freedom," said Friesen, one of the organizers and a mother with children in the division. "It's not about whether you like wearing a mask, we don't want that for our kids, but at this point we just want the freedom to choose."
The protest comes after the province announced last week that teachers and school staff will have to be fully vaccinated by the end of October, and masks will be mandatory throughout the education system, including on buses.
Provincial authorities say the orders, which also cover sectors beyond the education system, are designed to minimize spread of the coronavirus and prevent lockdowns in Manitoba.
A fourth wave of coronavirus infections is expected to be driven by the highly contagious delta variant this fall.
Friesen sees mandates as an infringement on her right to choose. Her faith factors into her outlook, too.
"It's my body and my choice, and that's something we hold dear here in Canada," Friesen said.
"I am a Christian, I am a God-fearing woman, and these are our temples and we have to treat them well. And that decision, how you treat your body well, is up to you."
Another speaker present at the protest read a section of a recent defiant letter written by Progressive Conservative MLA Josh Guenter to Premier Brian Pallister.
"This is no longer about a virus or a vaccine, this is now about government overreach and the setting of dangerous precedents that will be hard for my children to correct," the man said through a microphone held up by Friesen.
Provincial health orders motivated the crowd to gather in the first place, but it also drew federal candidates running for the People's Party of Canada.
Fighting vaccine passports is a party platform point heading into the fall election.
Immunization requirements are unconstitutional and create a segregated population, said PPC candidate Noel Gautron, who is running in the southeastern Manitoba riding of Provencher.
"If you look at our prime minister's comments early in the pandemic, they asked about vaccine mandates and he's like, 'Ah, in a place like Canada? Of course not.' Now, here we are," said Gautron. He ran and lost in the Winnipeg riding of Elmwood-Transcona in 2019.
Other jurisdictions in the U.S. are already seeing hospital numbers surge, in some cases higher than any previous wave, with the unvaccinated accounting for the vast majority of severe cases and deaths.
Manitoba has some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but experts have warned for months of possible spikes in pockets of the province where rates remain comparatively low.
That includes Hanover: at just over 46 per cent as of Monday, the health district has the third lowest rate of fully vaccinated residents in the province.
The crowd at the Steinbach protest was urged to pull their kids from in-person learning this fall should the Hanover School Division refuse to reject mask and vaccination mandates.
"Sometimes we have to go to drastic measures in order to be heard, which is not where we want to be," said Friesen, who described herself as an early childhood educator who has worked with kids for 18 years.
"We're not here to make people feel bad, this is not about camps, which side you're on. It's about freedom. That's what we're here for, that's what this country was founded on, godly principles of freedom."
The Hanover School Division board of trustees declined an interview request from CBC News.
In a statement, the board acknowledged parents and caregivers in the community have diverse views on COVID-19 preventative measures in schools.
"We understand and respect the importance of community voice and urge for compassion and respectful dialogue when engaged in these conversations," board chair Ron Falk said in a statement.
As of Friday, a range of services will only be available to those who are vaccinated, including indoor and outdoor restaurant dining, indoor theatres and movie theatres, bingo halls, nightclubs, casinos and more. Ticketed sporting events and concerts will also only be available to those with an immunization card or proof of vaccination.
WATCH | Steinbach protestors want end to COVID-19 restrictions:
With files from Sean Kavanagh and Meaghan Ketcheson