Conspiracy Theories and Science Denial on Display Downtown at “COVID is Over” Rally

They said not to take “hugs over masks” literally, but there was one guy on the corner soliciting hugs. They said it wasn’t an anti-mask protest, but at one point a speaker stopped everything to burn a mask before the cheering crowd. The messages were mixed, but the messaging was as plain as day. The anti-mask movement landed in St. George’s Square Sunday afternoon attracting around 50 people, mostly maskless, all eager to deflect from the reality of the situation.

Although it was organized by a local masking skeptic, most of the speakers featured at Sunday’s event were from out of town. The master of ceremonies was Kelly Anne Farkus, aka Kellyanne Wolfe, who’s been at the forefront of numerous anti-mask, and anti-COVID restrictions protests in the last year.

“This is not about masks. The only narrative that the media has against us is to take the name ‘Hugs Over Masks’ literally, that is pathetic,” Wolfe said. “‘Hugs Over Masks’ stands for facts over fear, and it stands for rights over tyranny. That’s what it stands for. And if you don’t have the capacity as an individual to figure that out on your own, you don’t deserve a voice.”

Many of the people that Wolfe felt deserved a voice did not take part in Sunday’s event. In a Facebook post on Thursday, organizer “SheLaw Hunter” promised a radio host, members of the anti-mask groups Project Phoenix and Canadian Frontline Nurses, a local small business owners, and workers from the Drop In Centre and HOPE House. Wolfe said that people backed out because they were concerned about threats and harassment, but there’s reason to think that some people were never going to take part in the first place.

“As an organization we are working hard with Public health and adhering to all IPAC [Infection Prevention and Control Canada] guidelines to keep everyone as safe as possible in our homeless community,” Drop In Centre executive director Gail Hoekstra told Guelph Politico in an email on Saturday when asked about members of staff participating in the protest.

Although she didn’t name him, Hoekstra believed that the organizers were referencing Donny Hay, who’s been advocating with both HOPE House and the Drop In Centre for a Medical Detox Treatment Centre in Guelph. Hay was going to speak to the need for such a facility at the rally, but in a Facebook post on Saturday he said he was backing out due to concerns about his wife’s health and not wanting to “take the risk of contracting anything.”

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That was probably the right call because virtually no one at the event was wearing mask. People were greeting each other with hugs, and there was precious little physical distancing as people engaged in close quarter conversations.

Centre stage was a silver pick-up truck outfitted with two large speakers. Before the speeches started, Wolfe invited people to come up to the truck and help themselves to one of a number of pre-made signs with slogans like “facts over fear” and “freedom is essential” but she asked everyone to return them once the event was over because getting more signs was an expensive proposition.

The speaks blasted loud music from Darius Rucker, the Interrupters, and the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The size and noise of the gathering provoked a response from Dewey, the co-owner and operator of the Sip Club who starting blasting loud music from his own speaker. After the protest, Dewey said that he was mad that the gathering was allowed to proceed, and was even madder at the possibility that the gathering could end up being a super-spreader event.

“I swear to you, I will be so heartbroken and livid if, because of this gathering, we have another spike in this region and have to go back to shutdown,” Dewey explained. “I’m down 71 per cent in sales compared to last year, and it’s so difficult to run a restaurant even in the best of times, and these days, it’s just terrifying to scrape by every week to get through this.

“People gathering like this is just basically spitting in my face and saying. ‘your rules don’t matter, we don’t care about you’,” Dewy added.

Wolfe and the others would not agree with that assessment of their own callousness. “Every single one of you are honestly heroes, you’re out here defending your communities, your businesses, each other, and most importantly, the children,” she said. “We are one community, this entire country is one community, and we need to stand up for each other, we need to learn how to trust your neighbors, learn how to trust each other.”

Despite that lofty ambition, trust was in remarkably short supply when it comes to political leadership, even local leadership.

Hunter was one of the speakers and held up a package of information that she intended to deliver to the Guelph Police Service alleging a conspiracy in which Mayor Cam Guthrie and Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart are complicit with a cabal that includes the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to undermine local governance.

“My research indicates that the city is in partnership with ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, a United Nations subsidiary,” Hunter said. “This partnership, and the agenda that they promote, has not been fully disclosed. This agenda is causing harm, and until it can be confirmed that these orders are lawful, and not a direction from ICLEI or any other United Nations non-government organization, I believe I have the right to refuse them.”

ICLEI is a network of 1,750 local and regional governments in over 100 countries that share information on sustainable development that combats rapid urbanization and the effects of climate change. Guelph is one of those 1,750 governments that is a member of ICLEI, and aside from the agreed up goals for environmental sustainability, ICLEI has no direct say in how the City of Guelph operates or how it’s public health policy, or any policy for that matter, is administered.

After the event in speeches in St. George’s Square, Hunter and other participants intended to march through downtown to Guelph Police headquarters on Wyndham Street. However, Police headquarters is not open to the public on Sundays, so it was unclear how she intended to deliver the package.

Other motivations were more easier to comprehend. Joshua Clausen, a co-founder of the group Northumberland Rise up, struggle with the wind to light a mask a fire for the amusement of himself and the crowd. He said that the only thing masking had done was cause the “biggest division in history.”

“This has superseded racism, because it affects every single person no matter what your creed, your culture, your colour or your beliefs,” Clausen said. “COVID has given people far too much time to sit at home and think and look up shit. […] We have to stop this bullshit. We need to stop the division amongst all of the factions.”

Gisele Baribeau of Vaccine Choice Canada, an organization the promotes conspiracy theories about all types of vaccinations, borrowed liberally from Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century to make the point that COVID-19 restrictions are a form of authoritarianism.

“How many of you are getting used to being the only person in the grocery store with no mask on? That’s me,” Baribeau said. “Without unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks? The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken and others will fall. […] There is a reason that we’ve grown up with a story of David and Goliath: Truth will prevail, so have courage.”

“Talk about white privilege,” Dewey said incredulously later. “When the lady said, ‘When I’m the only one not wearing a mask in the grocery store, I’m basically like Rosa Parks?’ Absolutely not. There are so many things you are, maybe if Rosa Parks was a suicide bomber maybe that would make more sense.”

Dewey wasn’t alone in expressing his outrage.

At one point, a 14-year-old girl named Elise got up and talked about how the government is lying to the general public about COVID, how she doesn’t like going into stores without a mask because she might get questioned about her mask exemption, and whether or not she’ll be able to proceed with activities with her friends in her home school group.

“I urge you to get informed, do your research and get involved in the fight for freedom because the more people we have fighting for freedom, the more certain we can be that humanity will prevail over tyranny,” Elise said in closing.

A few minutes later, Amy got up on the back of the truck with a slightly different message. She talked about how her little brother is six years old and immunocompromised, and how everyone wearing a mask protects him from catching COVID, and maybe losing his young life.

“You think the government’s controlling you, and if it was only affecting you I could see where you’re coming from,” Amy said. “Except it’s affecting all of us, it’s affecting every single one of us not wearing a mask, because it may not make you sick, but it will kill my brother.”

The facade of togetherness crack slightly as some in the crown started to heckle Amy. Wolfe, to her credit, asked the hecklers to stop and to let Amy speak.

“My grandfather is 56 now, and he has really bad arthritis. He can barely get out of his bed,” Amy continued nervously. “This virus will kill him, and I can’t sit and watch him hurt anymore. I get you guys think the government’s controlling you, but it’s scientifically proven that [masks] makes us safer.”

“Sweetheart, thank you so much,” Wolfe said when Amy was done, quickly taking the microphone back. “We appreciate her. She’s young, guys! It took a lot for her to come up here, so give her a round of applause.”

Wolfe then gave the mic to Paul Erwin, who has become well known for spreading COVID misinformation in Toronto, and handing out the conspiracy theory rag, Druthers, to passersby. He did not agree with Amy’s sentiment about masks being a public good. Not at all.

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