A church west of Edmonton, the scene of a large protest Sunday after it was forcibly closed by Alberta Health Services last week, has become emblematic of a widening fissure in Alberta.
Law enforcement and health officials say defiance of public health restrictions intended to contain the spread of COVID-19 is growing in the province.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside GraceLife Church in Parkland County. RCMP officers stood guard as the crowd shouted, sang and prayed. Part of a chain-link fence erected around the property was pulled down.
Some prayed for the church to reopen. Others shouted that the pandemic was fake — made up by the government — or held signs calling for the province to "end the lockdown."
- Hundreds rally outside Alberta church closed by health officials
- 'Physically closed': Alberta health officials shut down GraceLife Church west of Edmonton
Premier Jason Kenney, now facing an unprecedented revolt within the ranks of his UCP caucus over the current restrictions, has repeatedly warned that rule-breakers have become a stubborn obstacle in Alberta's bid to contain the virus. Further enforcement measures may be necessary, Kenney has said.
After a protest Monday at the legislature, Kenney said on Twitter it is "increasingly clear" that many people involved in protests are "unhinged conspiracy theorists."
"Their words and actions are unacceptable," Kenney said. "Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to respond to the threat of this pandemic. But spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories, and making threats is beyond the pale."
Compliance problems have plagued the Alberta government's response to the pandemic since the beginning in March 2020. There have been illegal parties and crammed church services. Shoppers have marched through malls unmasked.
Alberta has been contending with a surge in infection rates driven by variants of concern. On Monday, the province recorded 1,136 new cases, including 679 cases of variant strains. There were 14,849 active COVID-19 cases and 390 Albertans in hospital, including 90 in intensive care.
And yet, signals of resistance have become more visible as the third wave takes hold.
Some restaurants ordered to close dine-in service have refused to comply. Some gyms are flouting the rules, ignoring restrictions on capacity, masking and distancing.
Last Thursday, four vehicles rented by AHS workers visiting the northern community of La Crete were pelted with eggs, prompting a warning from the mayor about the dangers of misinformation around the pandemic and growing hostility toward health workers.
The following morning, "AHS Nazis" was found spray-painted in red outside an AHS office building in Edmonton.
'Brunt of the frustration'
The union that represents RCMP officers says members faced unfair backlash over enforcement at GraceLife, but that the Alberta controversy is part of a concerning trend across the country.
"Against the backdrop of increasingly challenging conditions and varying degrees of public health orders, RCMP members continue to uphold the law, including enforcement of public health orders intended to combat the spread of COVID-19, too often under unfair criticism," Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, said in a statement Friday.
"We ask those with concerns to direct their attention and protest to relevant lawmakers or policy-makers — in this case, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Health Act — rather than toward our professional, dedicated members."
RCMP Sgt. Kevin Halwa, an Alberta director for the police federation, said it's been a difficult year for officers on the front lines, and the situation is worsening.
"Unfortunately, the membership sometimes gets the brunt of the frustration of the public because they're the faces that they see," Halwa said.
"No matter where you are in the country, people are getting, for lack of a better word, COVID fatigue."
Alberta RCMP declined to be interviewed.
'Harassment, threats and disrespect'
In an emailed statement, AHS said it was aware that some Albertans are "actively disobeying public health measures" but reiterated that enforcement remains a last resort.
"The demands on our teams have grown significantly since the beginning of the pandemic," reads the statement.
"Our inspectors have often been the targets of harassment, threats and disrespect while carrying out their duties."
AHS said its public health officers work in co-operation with police and peace officers, but issuing tickets, fines and criminal charges is under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement and revoking business permits falls under the jurisdiction of local governments.
"It is only when significant risk is identified or continued non-compliance is noted that AHS resorts to enforcement action."
The political revolt
Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said Albertans are breaking the rules for different reasons.
Some feel their personal freedoms have been violated. Others — driven by misinformation — are skeptical of the health threat posed by the virus. A third group, Hardcastle said, is desperate to protect their livelihoods.
But there is a new threat to compliance, she said: The political revolt within the Kenney government will further erode confidence in the public health system.
After the province announced last week that it would reinstate harsher pandemic restrictions, 16 MLAs signed a letter of protest.
Speaker Nathan Cooper apologized Monday for signing the letter but almost half of the party's 40 backbenchers continue to publicly condemn the return to stricter health restrictions.
"Seeing other people breaking the rules emboldens others to do the same," Hardcastle said.
"If I live in a town and my own MLA is speaking out against the restrictions, then I think compliance is likely to be lower in those areas.
"The effect of those MLAs speaking out against the restrictions will be to undermine them."
The growing defiance against the rules is driven by a "toxic stew of misinformation," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta.
Saxinger said politicians casting doubt on the pandemic response will only further strengthen a growing mistrust of the provincial health response.
There is no easy solution to overcoming these doubts and half-truths, but the fractured messaging and growing divide in public opinion comes at a particularly distressing time, she said.
"It's emblematic of the polarization that we've seen all along. It just seems to be very exaggerated right now in a time that it's particularly dangerous."
-Dr. Lynora Saxinger
Enforce the rules so that even if people aren't agreeing with them, they have a reason to obey them.
Variants, now dominating Alberta's surging infection rates, are more transmissible and possibly more harmful. With front-line health care at risk, increased enforcement may be the only answer, Saxinger said.
"Enforce the rules so that even if people aren't agreeing with them, they have a reason to obey them."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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