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Anti-restriction protesters gather at legislature, march in streets with tiki torches

Last Updated Feb 23, 2021 at 1:00 pm MDT

EDMONTON (CityNews) – Separated by rows of police officers, groups of anti-mask protesters and counter-protesters gathered in Edmonton on Saturday afternoon to defend their respective causes.

Hundreds of protesters – not wearing masks or social distancing – convened at the Alberta legislature to denounce public-health restrictions.

The so-called “Walk for Freedom” – an event for which planning began more than a month ago – was also characterized as a “Jericho Torch March.”

That’s why some protesters, who arrived at the legislature in the early afternoon, held garden-style tiki torches. Others waved Canadian flags or draped them across their backs. At one point the protesters sang the national anthem.

Many held signs that read “Junk PCR Tests” or “Your Silence is Consent.” Some messages were overtly political – one sign blamed Alberta Premier Jason Kenney for “giving control to medical fascists.”

Several protesters were believed to have travelled by convoy from Lethbridge, Alta., through Calgary and Red Deer, to converge on the province’s capital – according to posters and pamphlets created by organizing group “Freedom Unity Alliance.”

There were some tense moments near the start of the rally. Some protesters began heckling members of the media, calling them “fake news” and accusing them of spreading “propaganda.”

On the other side of the plaza – divided by two rows of police officers, some using their bikes as barricades – was a smaller group of counter-protesters. They wore masks and were slightly more spread out.

They chanted “No Justice, No Peace” and “End White Supremacy” in an attempt to drown out the protests. One sign read: “Hate speech is not welcome here.”

One of the protest organizers was arrested early on as onlookers shouted “shame on you” to the police officers involved.

After a series of speakers made speeches, the rally made its way onto the streets of Edmonton. Protesters – some carrying the tiki torches chanted “no more lockdown” and “no more lies.”

In a tweet early Saturday morning, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson expressed his displeasure with the gathering.

“Some people associated with this rally, which is being led by organizers from outside Edmonton, may be associated with known hate groups,” Iveson said in a tweeted statement. “Edmonton unequivocally condemns racism, misogyny and other forms of hate – such speech is not welcome in our community.”

Among the speakers listed for Saturday’s rally was an infamous preacher often found on a street corner in downtown Calgary. Artur Pawlowski runs the Street Church and has openly voiced strong anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Islam sentiments.

Other speakers included Laura-Lynn Thompson, Brad Carrigan, Peter Downing, Kevin Johnson, and Paul Hinman.

READ MORE: Anti-pandemic-restriction rally promotes speakers with varied agendas

Some experts say the imagery and speakers tied to the event demonstrate an agenda beyond pandemic concerns. Some believe the goal was to draw newcomers to more radical beliefs.

“Groups like this can tied people in and bring people into this movement without them really understanding what it’s entirely about,” said Kurt Phillips of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

Added Irfan Chaudhry of MacEwan University: “You can organize it under whatever label you want to. But just go to their Facebook page and see the comments of their followers in terms of what they’re expecting.”

While counter protesters were present, some groups like Black Lives Matter withdrew over safety concerns.

“I think it’s important to stand up against hatred,” said Phillips. “But there is also the counter-argument that we don’t want to give them any more publicity than they should get.”