Several hundred anti-mask and anti-vaccine advocates, 5G and child-trafficking conspiracy theorists and members of a far-right group gathered in Vancouver Sunday for what was dubbed a “March for Freedom.”
Signs at the event protested mandatory mask and mandatory vaccine policies that do not exist in British Columbia.
Others made unfounded claims about Bill Gates, vaccines and 5G radiation.
A number of signs at the event supported the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which asserts — among other widely debunked claims — that a satanic cabal of U.S. Democratic Party officials are trafficking children for sex and to harvest life-extending chemicals from their blood.
The FBI labelled QAnon a national security threat in 2019, following incidents of violence perpetrated by followers of the theory.
Members of the group Soldiers of Odin, a far-right group that the Canada Border Services Agency says “are not afraid to use violence to achieve objectives,” were also present.
Speaking to a crowd assembled at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s North Plaza, organizer Ryan Kulbaba claimed the rally was in opposition to “government tyranny” and “government corruption.”
“This is all due to a virus that has spread the world. It’s not called COVID, it’s called socialism and communism.”
Without evidence, Kulbaba asserted that Canadians would soon be subject to a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, and were being unfairly shamed into wearing masks.
“We want our body, our choice,” he said.
Anti-mask groups have been holding weekly rallies in the city, but Sunday’s event was by far the largest yet. Vancouver police estimated as many as 700 people attended at the peak of the rally.
Edwin Hodge, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Victoria and an expert in conspiratorial movements said the convergence of multiple conspiracy theories around COVID-19 is worrisome, but not unexpected.
“When we encounter these kinds of crises … there’s that feeling that people get, that unease and uncertainty, the idea that that, you know, their whole world has been disrupted … they need to gain a sense of control back,” he said.
“Conspiracy theories offer them an explanation, it’s a way of imposing order on an on a chaotic universe. So in the case of COVID … I can’t blame nature, but I can blame George Soros or Bill Gates or or Justin Trudeau or Bonnie Henry.”
Hodge said conspiracy theories are hard to debunk because they are self reinforcing. Hard evidence used to disprove a theory is taken as proof on the part of the believer of the conspiracy itself, he said.
But he said the growth of the movement over the course of the summer is alarming.
“The fact that we’re getting so many people gathering, in spite of the evidence that large scale gatherings like this work as spreader events is deeply concerning.”
Public health experts are in wide agreement that non-medical face masks are an important tool to help control COVID-19, though physical distancing and hand washing remain the most effective methods.
According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, masks work as a barrier to stop the spread of infected droplets from a person’s mouth and nose when speaking, coughing or sneezing.
A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine has suggested that universal masking in public “might help reduce the severity of disease and ensure that a greater proportion of new infections are asymptomatic.”
A number of myths by mask opponents have also been widely debunked.
Doctors say masks do not decrease oxygen intake, increase toxin inhalation, shut down a person’s immune system or increase virus risk.
While B.C. health officials do not mandate that people wear masks, they now recommend their use in public, particularly in places where physical distancing is not possible, such as transit or in stores.
Transit services and a number of private businesses have also mandated their use.