'Public health orders need to be enforced': Sask. officials beg police to act against anti-mask protesters

Saskatchewan medical and legal experts are pleading with police to enforce the law as two more anti-mask events are planned for this weekend, including one promising face painting and games for kids.

Large gatherings including a children's festival are planned to protest COVID-19 measures

Hundreds attended a December rally in Saskatoon to protest mask-wearing, vaccines and a host of other issues. Some are hoping calling on police to enforce public health orders during more protests planned for this weekend. (Mr. YXE/Twitter)

Saskatchewan medical and legal experts are pleading with police to enforce the law as two more anti-mask events are planned for this weekend, including one promising face painting and games for kids.

University of Regina professor of justice studies Michelle Stewart said protesters are operating in a "culture of impunity" because police refuse to act.

"People are dying of COVID, and that needs to be understood. And so … the role for police and politicians and other leaders is to say, 'These events are not welcome. You cannot gather.' And the public health orders need to be enforced more rigidly," Stewart said.

"These have all the potential to become superspreader events. It's quite concerning. We are trying to figure out how to get ahead of COVID, not to spread it around."

The first expected event is a cross-Canada convoy planning stops in Maple Creek and Regina. The other, a Saskatoon event, is being billed as a "children's freedom rally fun day in the park." It promises face painting, a fishing prize pond, balloon animals and science table experiments. A poster indicates grandparents are welcome. 

Across Saskatchewan for the past year, police have generally chosen to observe and escort maskless, undistanced demonstrators which violate the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

In Saskatoon, police said Thursday they have issued a total of 11 tickets resulting from rallies in 2020 and 2021.

University of Regina professor Michelle Stewart said police need to enforce the public health laws if planned anti-mask protests go ahead this weekend across Saskatchewan, including one promising children's games. (CBC)

During a previous Saskatoon protest, one participant on a live video stream invited others to join, and then panned the camera toward the police vehicles escorting the group.

"Cops are leading the march! Cops are leading the march! Anyone who's scared to get a ticket, you won't. Whoo! Freedom!" she said.

In countries such as Australia, hundreds of hefty fines were issued to public health law-breakers. Compliance increased, COVID-19 numbers plummeted, and the country has now fully reopened its economy and all public events.

Unequal treatment for protesters

Stewart said there's another big problem. The gentle, even supportive treatment of the mostly white anti-mask protesters is highlighting the unequal way different people are treated by the justice system.

She and others pointed to the Indigenous woman who was the only one charged with assault, after a more than eight-minute-long encounter last week in a Saskatoon FreshCo supermarket parking lot when a security guard violently overpowered her.

"We have a group of individuals, often white, take up these spaces. Wearing a mask and distancing is not a loss of liberty. We have much bigger issues around freedom and privilege in this country," Stewart said.

Saskatoon child psychiatrist Tamara Hinz said she's particularly alarmed about the Saskatoon event, and says people are using children as pawns to forward their agenda.

"I really hope our public health and law enforcement professionals uphold the law. It's important for public morale and for public health. It sends a dangerous message if these events are allowed to go on unimpeded," Hinz said.

"It's one thing as a consenting adult to put yourself in harm's way like that. It's quite something else to bring children and minors under your care and protection into these situations that are intentionally dangerous. It's pretty upsetting to me."

Western University sociology professor Laura Huey, a criminologist who studies policing, said it's a very difficult situation for police. They don't want to give law-breakers a free pass, but don't want to seem heavy-handed and incite a backlash.

She said it might be best for politicians and police to just admit they aren't going to enforce the public health laws. Instead, they could send public health officials to these events to provide information and educate those attending.

A Saskatoon police official said they're aware of the planned children's event, and "will be treating it as we have similar rallies in the past.… If required, investigations into enforcement may take place following the event."