The snow was falling, and a bitter wind was blowing, but things actually did get heated at a protest outside the main office of the Upper Grand District School Board on Victoria Road Friday. Over 20 people, some with their kids, gathered to call for an end to mask mandates in schools, while at least one person stood her ground about the ongoing necessity of public health restrictions.
On Friday, there was no formal program, or any (local) celebrity speakers. A post on the Guelph Freedom Rally Facebook page, which has been a source of anti-mandate organizing for a while now, put out a call to protest outside the school board office starting at 1 pm, and several people did come.
Standing on the sidewalk along Victoria there was the general chit chat. One woman talked about how she goes to the store unmasked as an example to her son. “I don’t want to be telling my son to stand up for what you believe in, and then at 40 years old I’m like a hypocrite,” she said. Others talked about strategizing trips to the store as a mass, and noting that police can’t arrest a hundred unmasked people in a store at one time.
While the protestors held signs, the kids mostly played in the fresh snow. One might have mistaken it as a nice day outing if not for the occasional honks of support from fast moving cars heading up and down Victoria Road. There were also, occasionally, a few middle fingers proudly extended in the air. It was water off a duck’s back for the protestors, but their was a middle finger personified in their midst.
Zoe Bakker stood about 20 feet away from the main crowd. Her sign said “masks save lives” and though her megaphone was inoperable, her presence was hard to miss.
“I have a child in grade two, and I have no problem with the mask mandates,” Bakker said. “I’ve never seen any of these folks at any other protest, and I’m disappointed to see so many people out here for such a selfish cause, but I’m gonna stay up here as long as I can and have the other side heard.”
Some of the people I talked to would take exception to being described as selfish. They were out here on the side of the road fighting for our rights, I was told. “I think you should have the right to your [mask], and that I should have the right to not wear one so that I can actually breathe properly,” one woman said.
I was reminded that before COVID-19 it would have been an unusual site to see someone wear a mask at the store, and that if you had a cold you wouldn’t be wandering the aisles of some shoppe with your face covered. I made the point that residents from several Asian countries have long worn masks in public when they’re sick to protect others from getting ill.
“They’re obedient workers, that’s what they are. We’re Canadian, so we have freedom of choice,” I was told.
We went though the checklist of reasons not to wear a mask that have become all too familiar at these gatherings: They don’t work now, they’ve never worked in the first place, it interferes with your breathing, children can’t socialize, et cetera. But not all parents agreed that masks are an impediment to kids being kids.
“My son’s comfortable with his mask, we get him comfortable,” Bakker said. “He’s been doing this for almost two years now, but it’s just part of the routine, like putting on a hat before you leave when it’s snowing. There’s exceptions, of course, but for the most part, kids are very adaptable, and they’ll do what is required of them to attend school.”
One of the kids at the protest, who looked a few grades more advanced than Bakker’s son in grade two, respectfully disagreed. “From my point of view, I have to keep my mask on every single day, five days a week. I’m not allowed to play with my friends at recess, and I’m not allowed to speak with them if they’re in another class,” she said.
“I don’t want to be told off by a teacher for speaking to one of my friends because they’re not in the same cohort,” she added. “It’s just not fair.”
“It’s kind of funny because my kid still laughs and sings and plays and has fun every day,” Bakker said. “And when he’s at school, it just happens to be with a mask on, but that doesn’t prevent him from living a full life.”
The detente between Bakker and others was broken when one of the anti-mandate protestors approached her despite the fact that she was trying to keep her distance from the crowd. According to Bakker, the man, who had his young daughter mounted on his shoulders, accused her of being Antifa, a member of a loose coalition of people who support anti-fascist politics, but have no central leadership.
My quiet conversation with two of the protestors was broken by some yelling from down the sidewalk. Bakker was telling the man to “leave me the fuck alone.” Many of the protestors did not like the sound of someone using four-letter words in the presence of children, and one woman went up to Bakker saying that she would punch her in the mouth if she used swear words again in front of the kids. The man’s daughter retreated, crying.
Bakker explained to me that the man was bothering her about her cloth mask and why she wasn’t wearing an N95 mask, and then he apparently went on to explain that N95 masks don’t work anyway.
“I’m just like, ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone!’ So he starts crossing over here, coming down this way, and he started approaching so aggressively that I threatened with my knee for a second because I felt intimidated,” Bakker said. “Meanwhile, he’s got a three-year-old girl on his shoulders who is now crying because of her dad.”
Bakker would eventually depart with a friend, and so did the reporters there to cover the protest. The group was left alone with their signs, and ideas, and the snow. Some people passing by continued to honk support while the school board office sat silently behind them.