About 200 people attended a “freedom march” in St. Thomas, Ont., on Saturday hosted by a controversial pastor and supported by The Line Canada, a group that does weekly anti-lockdown protests across the country.
“We’re basically a civil rights liberty group fighting for freedom in Canada, just wondering when this lockdown is going to be over,” said Lamont Daigle, who is the executive director for The Line Canada. “We are the voice.”
Henry Hildebrandt, a pastor at the Church of God in Alymer, Ont., has been in and out of the headlines since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic for his controversial views on government-imposed restrictions due to COVID-19.
“Freedom of opinion and expression is welcome here,” Hildebrant chanted to his supporters, who all appeared to be un-masked.
Hildebrandt claims COVID-19 measures infringe upon charter rights.
Prior to the rally, St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston publicly stated the community didn’t want to see demonstrators converge on their community of less than 40,000.
“We don’t want you here — stay home,” Preston said during an interview with Global News.
A police presence kept an eye on the crowd, which had gathered at the Memorial Arena parking lot and marched along the Whistle Stop Trail to the intersection of Talbot and Moore and then back again.
“Rest assured that just because the rally is over, the investigation is not,” police Chief Chris Herridge wrote. “The St. Thomas Police are committed to this investigation and will be presenting evidence to the Crown Prosecutors for review.”
Medical experts are concerned anti-lockdown rhetoric may cause irreversible damage.
“Masks are really critical as far as trying to prevent the spread of the virus from one person to another person and also to protect that person from getting the virus,” explained Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at University of Toronto.
“I mean, this is basic science and so to say, ‘It’s my right not to wear a mask,’ well, it’s also someone’s right to live.”
Closed signs hung in the windows of many businesses in the downtown core as they locked up in anticipation of the rally.
“2020, regardless of the ‘freedom rally,’ has been just such a sucker punch of a year overall for our business community,” said Paul Jenkins, the CEO of the local chamber of commerce.
“This freedom rally is just one more layer, one more burden and obstacle that they need to overcome.”
Meanwhile, last weekend a similar march was held in Aylmer, Ont., where about 2,000 people attended even though the community declared a state of emergency due to concerns surrounding the pandemic.
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