March held to protest COVID-19 restrictions raises concerns about racism in Alberta

A rally and march through downtown Edmonton Saturday, held in opposition to COVID-19 measures, is now raising concerns about racism.

The march was part of duelling protests in front of the legislature — one for and one against Alberta’s COVID-19 public-health orders, which ban visitors inside households and restrict outdoor gatherings to no more than 10. Most businesses must operate at reduced capacity.

Read more: COVID-19: Hinshaw says decision on Step 2 of reopening in Alberta won’t be until March 1 or later

Edmonton police said four officers were assaulted during the protests and one organizer was arrested for causing a disturbance.

Afterwards, participants against pandemic restrictions, some carrying torches despite warm temperatures, paraded through the downtown on what they called a “walk for freedom.”

Click to play video 'Hundreds gather for anti-mask rally in Edmonton' Hundreds gather for anti-mask rally in Edmonton

Hundreds gather for anti-mask rally in Edmonton

The protest was organized by the “Walk for Freedom Alberta” group. That group claims to stand up for rights and freedoms and “peacefully promote breaches to our civil liberties across Alberta.”

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There were multiple groups seen in attendance, including the group that organized it, as well as others.

READ MORE: Protesters gather from across the province at Alberta legislature to fight COVID-19 health measures

Tiki torches in particular are seen as a racist symbol following the infamous white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. That rally led to several confrontations between white supremacists and counter-protesters.

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One year after Charlottesville: “Unite the Right” rally overshadowed by counter-protests – Aug 12, 2018

Edmonton MLA Rakhi Pancholi condemned the racism at the rally and said it’s the responsibility of everyone in the community to stand up and speak out against it and radicalized people.

“What it does tell them is that Alberta will tolerate this kind of racism and this kind of hate in our community.

“The onus is on all of us as individuals, but particularly on the leadership of this province, to stand up and say: ‘No, that’s not what Alberta’s about,’” Pancholi said.

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“This is sending a message to the outside world about what Alberta is about and what Alberta’s values are and what we hold dear.”

In a statement Monday evening, Premier Jason Kenney condemned racism at the rally. 

“Albertans value the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and assembly. This weekend, protesters gathered at the Alberta Legislature to oppose our government’s public health measures that are in place to protect the vulnerable, and our hospitals, from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kenney stated.

Read more: Dueling rallies: Anti-racism demonstrators clash with counter-protesters in Red Deer

“I understand that publicity for this event incorporated an image apparently taken from the notorious 2017 Charlottesville torch rally, which was an explicitly white supremacist event.

“Prominent racists promoted Saturday’s protest at the legislature, and individuals attended the event from known hate groups like the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ and ‘Urban Infidels.’

“I condemn these voices of bigotry in the strongest possible terms,” the premier said.

Albertans believe in the dignity of every human being, and have no time for these voices of division and hate, or the symbols that they represent,” Kenney said. 

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Read more: Edmonton protesters confront far-right group that CBSA report suggests is ‘not afraid to use violence’

Like any large public protest, there was likely a range of perspectives and motivations amongst those who attended. There is no doubt that some people came just to register their opposition to public health measures, which is their democratic right.

“But these people also have a responsibility to disassociate themselves from the extremists who peddle hatred and division, and who played a role in this event,” Kenney said.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley released a statement in response to Kenney’s that said: “We cannot equivocate on racism. After two days of silence, Premier Jason Kenney finally released a statement on the torch march this weekend in Edmonton.”

Read more: Far-right Soldiers of Odin members ‘not afraid to use violence,’ intelligence report warns

“His statement raised more questions than it answered. While acknowledging certain elements of the racism at the rally, he omitted others and he proceeded to defend the majority of the rally’s attendees,” Notley wrote.

“Torch rallies have been associated with some of the most heinous displays of racism in history and Albertans deserve a premier who is unequivocal in condemning hate and racism.”

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In a tweet, former MP Amarjeet Sohi wrote, in part: “These racist rallies & attacks, if go unchallenged, tarnish #yeg’s reputation of being an inclusive & welcoming city.”

Click to play video 'Tiki torch wielding white nationalists return to Charlottesville' Tiki torch wielding white nationalists return to Charlottesville

Tiki torch wielding white nationalists return to Charlottesville – Oct 8, 2017

Mayor Don Iveson called the tiki torches at the rally appalling and that the protest may force the province to tighten restrictions.

“The great irony of a let’s-open-back-up rally making life harder for small businesses is not lost on me.”

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When asked about the government’s response to the demonstration — and prior to the premier’s statement — Alberta’s multiculturalism minister said peaceful protest is a very important part of democracy but racism is never tolerated.

“Obviously, white supremacy and racism is never, ever tolerated in this province, should not be tolerated in this country at all,” Leela Aheer said Monday morning. “I think I’ve been very, very clear about that.”

Read more: Edmonton police hate-crime unit investigating 2 separate incidents

“I’m happy to make a statement right now that peaceful protest is a very, very important part of democracy.

“However, racism, white supremacy — any of that — is absolutely, imperatively, absolutely and unequivocally unacceptable at any time.”

Aheer also said she took exception to the question given that she has spoken out against racism in the past.

“I don’t know if you read an article that I wrote about a year and a half ago about white supremacy. I have absolutely been exposed to that in my past,” she said.

“I find this question to be very disingenuous considering my own background, and considering what I have had actually had to put up with in my lifetime when it comes to white supremacy.”

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Aheer is of East Asian descent on her father’s side.

Read more: Alberta leaders denounce racism as Black community calls for action

University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley wasn’t surprised by the racism shown at the COVID-19 restrictions protest but said right now, it’s about Alberta’s identity.

“While some people may be leaving Alberta now for a better economic future, others are starting to look hard at Alberta’s inclusiveness and say: is this the type of community that I want to be part of?” Wesley said.

“While there will be some people from across the country that will look at these rallies and for them this will reinforce their belief that Alberta is somehow a backward and misogynist and white supremacist province.

“Those of us that live here know that’s not the case but we also have to be very careful in trying to say that this isn’t part of our community,” Wesley said.

“It is a part of our community and unfortunately it’s becoming an even more prominent part.”

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The rally involved a convoy that began in Lethbridge, went through Calgary and Red Deer, and then finished at the Alberta legislature.

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The demonstration is still being investigated.

— with files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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