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Hundreds of maskless demonstrators protest COVID-defiant church's closing

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Protesters on the road in front of GraceLife Church. Image credit: Gracelife Church of Edmonton/Facebook

Several hundred mostly maskless protesters packed the rural road in front of GraceLife Church southwest of Edmonton Sunday to protest against the closing last Wednesday of the Edmonton-area church by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the RCMP.

Cat-calling police, vandalizing the car of the chief of the nearby Enoch Cree Nation, and tearing down part of a fence erected to seal off the church after weeks of defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, many in the large crowd behaved in a fashion that could be fairly described as unchristian.

Participants in the demonstration, which also gave the appearance of being a COVID-19 super-spreader event, included a caravan of opponents of pandemic restrictions from Calgary.

But judging from a statement sent to media by lawyers for the church -- which appears from its actions and commentary to be Protestant, non-denominational, evangelical, socially conservative, conspiracy-minded, politically activist and right-wing in political orientation -- nobody from the congregation was there.

Indeed, according to the statement from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the legal advocacy organization associated with social conservative causes run by Premier Jason Kenney's longtime friend John Carpay, while "GraceLife church appreciates the public outpouring of support to fully open churches in Alberta," its "congregants were not at the protest that occurred on Sunday, April 11, 2021 near the church's facility." (Emphasis added.)

"GraceLife church has no control of our church or grounds at this time," the statement said, washing the church's hands of the matter in a manner worthy of Pontius Pilate. "The church grounds are fully under the responsibility and control of the RCMP and Alberta Health Services."

Nevertheless, in a statement that has been on the church website for weeks, the church has publicly argued that "having engaged in an immense amount of research" it fears "COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties."

"By the time the so-called 'pandemic' is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent," the statement says.

The church's pastor, James Coates, famously spent more than a month in jail by refusing to agree to the bail terms a provincial court judge appeared anxious to grant him. Right-wing media on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border have had a field day with this, portraying it as religious persecution.

A news release from the First Nation yesterday said one protester vandalized Chief William "Billy" Morin's vehicle when he tried to stop demonstrators parking on Enoch Cree land, and another attempted to assault him.

"This incident demonstrates the need for more public understanding and recognition of First Nations sovereignty and treaty rights," Chief Morin said. The First Nation will place a checkpoint on its southern border for the next two weeks, he said.

Alert readers will recall how just before the pandemic struck in early 2020, Canadian conservative political parties and their supporters were convulsed with fury at the thought of blockades in support of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation's objections to Coastal GasLink Pipeline's plans to build on their traditional territory in northwestern British Columbia.

Conservative politicians were infuriated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apparent reluctance to get the RCMP to start busting heads immediately at sympathetic demonstrations that broke out along rail lines across Canada, claiming they would soon bring the national economy to its knees.

When one such demonstration blocked a rails near the Enoch Nation for a few hours it became one of the justifications for the United Conservative Party's draconian and likely unconstitutional legislation banning public protests on "critical infrastructure" -- basically defined as anything the UCP says it is -- which has yet to be tested in the courts.

Well, nobody can claim a shuttered church on a rural road in central Alberta is critical infrastructure -- except, as it happens, practically all those Alberta conservatives who were in a state of outrage at the demonstrations a year ago.

Indeed, you'd almost think from listening to Kenney that nothing could be more critical than a church!

For whatever reasons, Alberta politicians and police now seem uncharacteristically solicitous of the rights of the COVID-denying protesters.

Premier Kenney, rather plaintively, boasted on Saturday that Alberta does less to restrict worship services to control the spread of COVID-19 than any other province. In addition, he is allowing more than a quarter of his caucus to publicly oppose any measures to control the spread of the pandemic, which naturally encourages protesters like yesterday's crowd, whoever its participants may have been.

Unsavoury right-wing characters are also tempted to make pilgrimages to the church. People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier is scheduled to be in Edmonton today to pose for a selfie. Former Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Derek Sloan, kicked out of the federal party by Leader Erin O'Toole for a multitude of sins in January, had his picture taken there last week.

Meanwhile, Kenney is already suggesting the province will be able to reopen in June, a risky strategy that could propel Alberta into another premature reopening and a fourth wave of COVID-19.

The RCMP issued a long statement yesterday emphasizing its respect for the rights of the GraceLife protesters, despite their apparent willingness to ignore COVID-19 restrictions and other laws. "The RCMP will use only the level of intervention necessary to ensure the safety of all citizens and to maintain peace, order, and security," the Mounties promised.

For some reason, we will likely not hear the same demands for police to respond swiftly and violently that were common in February 2020.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Gracelife Church of Edmonton/Facebook

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