ATHABASCA – Her wish that public health orders be followed at Athabasca’s first Enough is Enough rally to protest COVID-19 restrictions didn’t come true, but Athabasca mayor Colleen Powell is glad to hear it was a peaceful event that went according to plan with no difficulties for the community.
Powell said in an interview Thursday, the day before the rally, that she is a supporter of the freedom to express oneself in such a way, but was concerned for a number of reasons — the spread of the virus due to the large gathering, for one, and the possibility of groups from outside of Athabasca coming to town to either take part, or to protest against organizer Benita Pedersen’s call for civil disobedience regarding pandemic restrictions.
Rumours involving counter demonstrations were bandied about on social media in the lead-up to the rally. Pedersen’s encouragement of the use of tiki torches also cast a racist shadow over the event, and came to the attention of anti-racism groups across Western Canada.
“There is, first of all, the worry that you have people who are not masked. People that close together could actually spread the virus to the rest of us. There are also concerns about some of the people who might come, who are not necessarily there just simply for an end the lockdown,” Powell said. “It has to be said there is freedom of speech in this country, people have a right to protest. However, they don't have a right to go against government regulations.”
The counter-protest that did occur consisted of five people, who organized their demonstration the afternoon of the rally, and kept their distance, so their message of anti-racism and continued pandemic restrictions were not misunderstood. And the number of torches that actually came out for the singing of “This little light of mine” totalled just two, as rally-goers opted instead to show their support for Pedersen’s message using candles, flashlights and the headlights of their vehicles.
In a follow-up interview Saturday, Powell pointed out town council passed a motion before Christmas that they would advocate for people to follow public health orders. Town council also passed a temporary face-covering bylaw, along with Athabasca County, in November, just before positive COVID cases increased dramatically and the province instituted lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus — most of which are still in effect.
“It's an odd disease and we simply don't know enough about it, but I want to emphasize that there's good science out there. There's good information out there. This is not a hoax,” she said.