ATHABASCA – The latest anti-mask rally in Athabasca had a soundtrack made up of heavy metal music and a cacophony of car horns.
The two-hour event put on by Benita Pedersen April 29 at Riverfront Park was re-branded as an information session after Athabasca town council voted April 20 to send Pedersen a letter requesting she cancel the planned rally due to the already high COVID-19 case numbers in the region and the intentional disregard of mandatory public health restrictions instituted by the provincial government.
“It seems that there are a number of people in Athabasca that are uncomfortable with the concept of a rally right now,” Pedersen wrote in a Facebook post. “There will be a panel of presenters … individuals from all perspectives will be welcome to submit a question in writing and the panel will address it.”
One of the panelists was Dr. Roger Hodkinson, an Edmonton pathologist, and CEO of a company that provides “Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs) to insurance companies, employers, and lawyers.” He has also steadfastly maintained that COVID is a hoax and that masks and social distancing do not work.
“There is utterly unfounded public hysteria driven by the media and politicians. It’s outrageous. This is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public,” he told Edmonton city council last November, which earned him repudiation from the medical community.
Marilyn Burns, an Edmonton personal injury lawyer and leader of the Alberta Advantage Party, was also in attendance. She doubled down on a conspiracy theory that there is a United Nations-organized cabal of world leaders and elites seeking to control the global populace through techno-totalitarianism, implicating liberal and conservative politicians alike.
Added to the panel at the last minute was Chris Schaefer, who has appeared at several similar rallies held by Pedersen, and bills himself as a mask expert. He is director of a company that specializes in workplace safety training. He personally specializes in respiratory fit testing, telling audiences that a healthy immune system is more effective than the masks that have been mandated by health authorities around the world.
After a few introductions, the panel fielded questions from those in attendance — about 40-50. Several in attendance confirmed they had come down to listen, and were not taking a firm stand either way.
Some of those who came to support Pedersen’s message clapped and cheered when the panelists spoke about their Charter rights being taken from them, the ineffectiveness of government mandates, and the conspiracy theory that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab.
Others, specifically one woman, Lisa Allan, laid on her horn and cranked heavy metal music as a form of free expression in a public place. Attendees were visibly annoyed, and one stationed himself in front of her vehicle after placing a sign on her hood that remained for the rest of the rally.
It read: “Fear is the virus/Think logically/Use your common sense.”
Another sign criticized chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and accused her of irresponsible tweets. Another told passersby that “Government is the virus.”
Several others also stopped by briefly to join the intermittent chorus of horns, and others showed up just to lay on their horns as they drove through the parking lot.
One exchange between a rally supporter and Allan went as follows:
“We still love you,” said the woman carrying the clipboard to take questions from the audience.
“I can’t hear you. The music is too loud,” said Allan, who was masked in her vehicle and documenting everyone who was taking pictures of her and her licence plate.
“I said we still love you,” said the other woman.
There was definitely more tension in the air than during the late-February rally organized by Pedersen in Athabasca. Another big difference was the lack of a visible RCMP presence. Where there were eight uniformed officers at the February rally, the only visible police presence came in the form of a few drive-bys by marked police vehicles.
That said, Athabasca RCMP detachment commander Sgt. Colin Folk said they were “well aware of the dynamics of the rally last night.”
“We did have members in attendance and monitored the situation,” he said in a Friday morning e-mail, adding that no tickets were issued by RCMP, though he couldn't speak for AHS inspectors. “I have been in constant contact with community representatives regarding these protests and understand there is some frustration and anger from the community regarding these rallies. Ultimately, the RCMP has a responsibility to ensure the safety of the public regardless of their viewpoints regarding the COVID restrictions, and will continue to be diligent to ensure the safety of all. We will also assist Alberta Health Services in their efforts to enforce the restrictions if the situation dictates that.”