RCMP, City of Kelowna grappling with how to manage persistent COVID-19 protests

Managing COVID protests

As British Columbia moves forward with its vaccine passports, some groups continue to push back against the system and for some, even the idea of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic.

Protesters have been rallying against COVID-19 restrictions in the Okanagan since the very early days of the pandemic in spring 2020.

Signs saying "fake news" and "fake crisis" are staples at many of the rallies in the Okanagan and across the world.

One particularly-dedicated group of several dozen people have protested schools, vaccine clinics, Interior Health's headquarters and media outlets, including Castanet. They have also been a fixture in Stuart Park on a weekly basis, where weekend events draw larger crowds.

One of the largest protests the city has seen was held Sept. 1 outside Kelowna General Hospital. It attracted a wider crowd and drew condemnation from healthcare workers and politicians.

Kelowna RCMP commander Supt. Kara Triance suggested Monday the size of that rally caught them off-guard.

"Frankly despite our intelligence gathering work and our criminal analysts acquiring as much information as they could ahead of time, we didn't have a true picture of the numbers that were there," she said, adding police work to balance the right to protest with the impact of the crowd on the area.

"There is a balance between what is lawful and what isn't. We have to continually assess risk and plan for an adapt accordingly," she said. "It's challenging, you can begin to arrest one person, two, three people at a time, however that can create a whole other set of risks for not only the crowd that is there but also the people trying to access the essential services."

Another set of hospital protests elsewhere in Canada took place Monday, organized by an Ontario anti-vaccine group calling themselves Canadian Frontline Nurses. After more negative reaction to the protests targeting healthcare facilities, the group said they would stop in the response to the "hate pouring in."

Supt. Triance said the Kelowna detachment is strained when they are forced to respond to frequent crowd control situations on top of its contract policing and other community safety needs.

Triance said Monday officers are often dealing with the same individuals over and over again at protests.

"Individuals that have come across our attention multiple times for events are first provided with education and information and then we move into enforcement action. From there it becomes a level of tolerance as to what enforcement action we would take. When we're dealing with people who have been educated and informed multiple times, there is clearly no other alternative than an enforcement approach."

One protester who refused to identify himself at Monday's protest outside Interior Health on Doyle Avenue said media organizations like Castanet are spreading lies.

In Kelowna, the anti-lockdown and anti-mask movement has been led since its infancy by David Lindsay, a man with a long and strange past of fighting the government with bogus legal arguments in court.

Bruce Orydzuk, who is being investigated for hate crime charges in related to an altercation with a security guard outside a vaccine clinic, is also well-known to police and rarely misses a protest.

Other leaders or prominent members of the local movement include Art Lucier, a local pastor who openly defied health orders over gatherings last spring. Ted Kuntz is the president of Vaccine Choice Canada, Canada's main anti-vaccination group, and speaks at many events. Mitch Murphy is a musician who calls himself the "Red Pill Rapper" and plays a key role in organizing rallies locally. Saerah Bankert sells the "Resistance" clothing worn at many of the protests.

Supt. Triance said there have been multiple individuals who have been ticketed repeatedly throughout the pandemic who have received thousands of dollars of fines.

The City of Kelowna has ramped up bylaw enforcement and says it has issued protest event organizers 14 fines totalling $3,900 in the past three weeks. While the protests themselves are not ticketed, bylaw violations for things like amplified sound systems and selling merchandise are handed out.

“The city acknowledges and supports the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly,” said Mayor Colin Basran. “But there are limits to what is considered a protest and we have no tolerance for those who flout the rules for public events that everyone else has to follow.”

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