WATERLOO — As close to 1,000 impassioned anti-vaxxers descended on Waterloo’s public square Sunday for the Waterloo Region For Freedom Rally, the unverifiable, conspiracy-laden messages from the speakers podium were clear:
COVID 19 vaccines are dangerous to your health.
Vaccine mandates are a threat to your civil rights and a form of “medical apartheid.”
The government and medical establishment are engaged in a vast cover up to rob you of your freedoms.
The pandemic is a fraud. “Is there anybody in the crowd who supports vaccine mandates?” asked Byram Bridle, a University of Guelph associate prof whose claims about natural immunity have been heavily disputed by experts. “Because if you are, we can engage in a respectful scientific discussion about vaccines.” As eyes scanned the crowd expectantly, not one person raised their hand. This was a group, judging by signs with messages like “Communism: You Masked for it!” and “How many variants do they have to make up before you wake up?” that wildly embraced Bridle’s point.
As did the rest of this disgruntled panel, which included university and college professors at odds with their institutions, representatives from the right-wing People’s Party of Canada, a retired correctional officer railing against “self-appointed dictators” and two local politicians who have formed their own right-wing political party. As they took the podium one by one at a gathering that resembled a family-friendly fun fest, complete with dogs, babies and booths offering free doughnuts, face painting and colouring books for kids (but not a mask in sight) their messages were ones of outrage and defiance. “I am not a wild animal to be muzzled and told to stay inside my home,” insisted Diane Boskovic, who ran (and lost) for the People's Party in the federal election. “Isolation is a crime against humanity!” proclaimed Patrick Doucette, who also ran (and lost) as a People’s Party candidate. “This is not based on science — it’s based on fear!” insisted Take Action Canada’s Julie Mintha, who called the crowd “divine beings” and led them in a holistic exercise to “raise our vibration collectively and take our power back.” “The government is against us and the media is against us,” said Michael Palmer, a University of Waterloo chemistry professor who referred to a “fake pandemic” and who admitted his career is at risk. “Democracy is at risk!” agreed Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios, a former Progressive Conservative member who was removed from caucus for voting against the government’s legislation to extend its emergency powers during the pandemic. “Change is just around the corner,” insisted her husband, Jim Karahalios, in what sounded like a political stump speech for the New Blue Party of Ontario he founded. One protester dressed in what appeared to be the uniform of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner wielded a sign that read “Vaccinate . . . segregate . . . eliminate” while others waved placards with slogans like “Fear is the virus” and “Unvaccinated Lives Matter!” Amid threats of class action lawsuits against the government, with cheers and honking from the streets, speakers recited quotes about freedom and democracy from John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, neither of whom, it can be assumed, were referring to anti-vax rallies. At least one regional politician, who returned from a weekend trip to learn the rally had occurred, was not amused.
“I’m extremely disappointed that this type of demonstration continues to happen given the overwhelming results we’re seeing in the significant decline in positive COVID cases due to the overwhelming response Waterloo Region residents have made in receiving their first and second vaccines,” noted regional councillor Jim Erb. “Unless there’s some underlying medical reason why an individual should not be vaccinated, these demonstrations are a very selfish response to not respecting the well-being of those we come in contact with on a daily basis, such as family, neighbours, co-workers and unsuspecting residents.
“This is a totally inappropriate response to a health care crisis that has consumed all of our lives for the past 19 months, and an insult to those involved in the health care sector who have risked their own health in protecting the well being of our Region and beyond.” Demonstrations such as this put at risk the health of municipal employees who may be in the public space, those asked to provide surveillance and the general public in the vicinity of the demonstration.” At the conclusion of the two-hour rally, protesters prepared to march to the region’s public health building a few blocks away, then on to Waterloo Park. Waterloo Regional Police — who were on hand to ensure the safety of those in attendance and the community at large — reported no issues during the event. Correction: This story has been edited to correct a quote attributed to Jim Karahalios.