Every week in Calgary up to 2,000 anti-vaccination and anti-mask protesters assemble across the street from a health centre before marching through the Beltline community. The protesters have harassed health-care workers, residents, and even children for wearing masks. A vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), a union which contains many health-care workers, said, “Our members say they are scared when walking into the centre to start work.” This has ultimately pushed the community to hold a counter-protest.
The first counter-protest was organized by Community Solidarity YYC, a newly formed group of Beltline residents and activists, and took place on Saturday, Feb. 26. Approximately 30 people, including myself, my partner and child, assembled to make signs. There were a variety of slogans, from “Organise Your Workplace: Demand Paid Sick Leave,” to “We Support Health-Care Workers.” Then we made our way to 17th Avenue and awaited the arrival of the anti-vaccination and anti-mask protest.
I’ve attended many protests and events over the last 15 years, but I was still shocked by the immediate hostility. Protesters slowed down to film us on their phones. One attempted to film my three-year-old child. I felt sick to my stomach. I told my partner that they both needed to move away from the area.
Unfortunately, my fears were well-founded. Within minutes, a protester detonated a smoke bomb a few metres away from me. It released plumes of black smoke before two police officers extinguished it in the snow.
Some anti-vaccination protesters yelled, “We love you!” or “There’s space in this protest when you decide to join us,” but more stopped to stare, jeer, and film. Others came onto the sidewalk to try to provoke us. One anti-vaccination protester attempted to put out a cigarette on one of our signs. Three anti-vaccination protesters surrounded a counter-protester and shoved a book in his face while taking photos. Police officers passively watched these incidents.
There were far-right symbols scattered among the anti-vaccination protesters’ Canadian flags and F*ck Trudeau signs. One protester carried a flag associated with the Storm Alliance, a nationalist, anti-immigration organization; another protester wore a sweatshirt with a logo associated with a white nationalist website; others wore sweatshirts proudly declaring that they were ‘purebloods.’
It’s extremely admirable that Community Solidarity YYC, a new and small organization, has decided to stand up for their neighbours and health-care workers, and against the far right. However, it also highlights the appalling lack of leadership from the labour movement. Protesters have been intimidating health-care workers at the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre for almost six months, but the AUPE, United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) haven’t organized a single counter-protest! These organizations represent approximately 145,000 workers across the province and could easily mobilize a contingent to oppose these protests.
There have also been multiple missed opportunities for others to stand in solidarity with health-care workers. The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), which represents 10,000 teachers in Calgary, has recently denounced anti-mandate protests at schools. A counter-protest by educators and health-care workers, both sectors that have been denounced by Premier Jason Kenney for daring to raise safety concerns throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, could easily challenge these anti-vaccination and anti-mask protesters.
We know that action by workers is the only way to stop harassment and intimidation from anti-vaccination and anti-mask protesters and the far-right elements that lurk among them. Organized counter-protests by health-care workers ensured that the trucker convoy protests were shorter in Toronto than in any other part of the country. In Ottawa, residents blocked an intersection to prevent a convoy of trucks from joining up with protesters downtown. The blockade wasn’t lifted until the end of the day when residents allowed a “negotiated retreat”—protesters weren’t permitted to leave until they had removed flags and “Freedom Convoy” signage and stickers from their vehicles and surrendered jerry cans. These examples show in practice that mass mobilization can curb right-wing harassment.
It’s time for the labour movement to stand up against the far right and protect health-care workers! The only way to keep workers, residents, and patients safe is by mobilizing thousands of ordinary people to counter the right.