INNISFAIL – Protesters attending a federal election forum for the Red Deer-Mountain View federal riding forced its cancellation Wednesday evening (Sept. 8) after they refused a request by organizers to wear masks.
The event at the Innisfail branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, which featured candidates from five political parties, was organized by the Innisfail & District Chamber of Commerce but was shut down 20 minutes into the event following the attendance of three Innisfail RCMP officers and requests to about half the 100 or so attendees to put on their masks or else they would have to leave and watch the event on Zoom.
Effective Sept. 4 in Alberta, masks are mandatory in all indoor public spaces and workplaces with certain exemptions including a physical fitness activity, performance activity, a worship service at a place of worship, or at schools.
When the protesters repeatedly chose to argue their rights were being violated, or claim they had mask exemptions and even file a human rights complaint, organizers chose to cancel the event.
“I think you could really tell that (some) people came with the intent of not wearing masks and therefore they forced the hand of the chamber and I think that is very sad,” said Earl Dreeshen, the current Conservative Party of Canada incumbent member of Parliament (MP) for the riding. He wore a mask from the beginning to the end of the forum. “It is the law of the land and we have to respect that.
“There are 18 people that died today from COVID,” added Dreeshen of Alberta’s latest daily pandemic death toll. “I think people have to start putting it into perspective. Things are a little different than they were a few months ago and we all have to do our part.”
Tyrel Robinson, the president of the Innisfail & District Chamber of Commerce, said it was disappointing his agency was forced to cancel the event after addressing the anti-maskers that they had to comply to stay at the forum or leave.
“A lot of time and effort was put into it, arranging and trying to put this event on so everyone could have an opportunity to learn more about the candidates and ask them some questions and unfortunately we had to shut it down, so it’s a bit disappointing for us and I imagine it’s disappointing for the candidates as well,” said Robinson, adding event organizers made plans beforehand in case disrupters attended. “We knew that this was our worst-case scenario of people not wanting to comply or trying to make it a protest event, so we had planned on it if people showed up and wouldn’t put their masks on.”
Shortly before the event was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., a group of about 20 people showed up unmasked, which triggered a loud round of applause. About 15 minutes into the forum the trio of Innisfail RCMP officers arrived.
“We called RCMP and through consultation with the RCMP it wasn’t worth trying to ticket and it was just advised to shut the event down,” said Robinson, adding it was the Innisfail & District Chamber of Commerce's decision.
“It was a worst-case scenario. We kind of thought it could happen. We were hoping it wouldn’t. We were hoping people would be more interested in hearing from the candidates than protesting the masks but that wasn’t the situation tonight.”
Meanwhile, other candidates also expressed disappointment with the dramatic decision to shut down the forum.
“People came to hear what all the candidates had to say and at the end of day we have to move forward. I can’t control supporters and I respect their choices and what their decisions are,” said People’s Party of Canada candidate Kelly Lorencz.
“At the end of the day it comes down to personal responsibility and fairness and respect and I would hope all of our supporters would respect other people’s choices and decisions,” he added. “I choose not to wear a mask; I would expect people to respect that as well.”
Asked if he believed most of the unmasked people in attendance were People’s Party of Canada supporters, Lorencz said, “I don’t know if they were my supporters or not.”
Maverick Party candidate Mark Wilcox, who wore a mask throughout the forum, also said he was disappointed the event was ended prematurely.
“It’s unfortunate that Canada is in such a spot that we can’t have a simple debate without the polarization that we saw here tonight. We are at a fever pitch in Canada right now and things are flaring up,” said Wilcox.
He said people should wear masks if they choose to do so.
“Until we can find our way through this, I think we should all try to get together and work together on it. Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, it’s not that important to me really,” he said.
Libertarian Party of Canada candidate Jared Pilon, who wore a mask during the forum, said the turn of events at the forum was “unfortunate” as it would have been “nice" to debate some of the issues and ideas.
“I would say at least half the people here were just wanting to carry on,” he said.
Liberal candidate Olumide Adewumi, who wore a mask during the forum, left the hall immediately after it was stopped and could not be reached for comment.
Independent candidate Clayten Willington arrived at the hall prior to the forum starting but decided not to take part after being told masking would be required.
Speaking outside the building, he said, “There’s enough room up there for them (organizers) to social distance the candidates. My platform is based on freedom to choose and what kind of representative would I be to the people if I just caved?”
He said wearing a mask or face covering should be an individual choice.
New Democratic Party candidate Marie Grabowski did not attend the forum.