Fences were erected around GraceLife Church, in Edmonton, Alberta, on Wednesday, after faith services had continued for the past few months despite being prohibited, amid the ongoing pandemic.
Gatherings in the province are currently limited to up to 10 people outside, while inside meetings between households are prohibited, with the possibility of fines up to $1,000 (£581) for those who breach the rules.
GraceLife Church pastor James Coates was charged earlier in the year with two violations of the Public Health Act (PHA) and failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking, but saw one charge dropped after pleading guilty to a lesser count.
After shutting GraceLife down on Wednesday, Alberta Health Services (AHS) said it “physically closed” the building and will be preventing access to it until the church “can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s restrictions.”
In reaction to the fences being erected at the church, around 1,000 people gathered outside the area on Sunday, as one person shouted: “Only tyrants fear the lord” and another said: “Listen Gestapo, we are a free country,” according to CTV.
A small group of the protesters then successfully pulled down some of the fencing, as officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) rushed to put it back up from the other side.
Counter-protesters helped RCMP officers restore the damaged fences, as other members of their group shouted: “Jesus would not take down the fence” and prayed for it to be left alone.
The RCMP released a statement later on Sunday confirming that officers were on the scene helping to “maintain public safety” and protect the “peace”.
The service added: “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 RCMP uses necessary measures to protect the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, to promote the safety of all citizens, to enforce laws and to maintain peace and order.”
Later on in the day, protesters trying to find a place to leave their cars before walking over to the gathering ended up parking on Enoch Cree Nation land, causing anger among residents.
Enoch Cree Nation council member Amanda Morin told Global News that members quickly parked their vehicles at the “entryways to let them know that they are not allowed to park on private property.”
Ms Morin said that although some of the 150 protesters who trespassed were “respectful,” tensions escalated as some of the gathering allegedly threw “racial slurs” at the members after being informed that they were not allowed to park there.
One protester was arrested for allegedly attempting to assault a Enoch Cree Nation council member, as the RCMP released a statement reminding residents that parking is prohibited on Enoch Cree First Nation territory.
In a separate news release, Ms Morin criticised some of the protesters, saying: “Although I respect GraceLife protesters’ right to protest, right to worship, and right to free speech, I strongly condemn their illegal trespassing on our land, their vandalisation of a Nation member’s vehicle, and their blatant disrespect of our sovereignty as a proud First Nation.”
Alberta premier Jason Kenney raised concerns that the protest could become a “superspreader event” and criticised the gathering to reporters on Sunday.
“My message for any Albertan would be to take Covid seriously and to keep people safe. My message to people of faith in particular would be if you believe in the sanctity of human life please act accordingly,” he said, adding: “This virus is real.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Alberta has recorded more than 160,902 coronavirus cases and at least 2,013 deaths. While Canada has seen more than 1.06 million positive tests and around 23,000 fatalities.
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