Several hundred people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s north plaza on Sunday for the second day of an anti-mask “mega freedom rally.”
It came after Vancouver police estimated 1,000 or more people attended a similar rally and march on Saturday.
Attendees listened to speeches decrying what they called censorship, along with “lockdowns” and mask mandates, and expressed fears a COVID-19 vaccine would be made mandatory.
While masks are required on ferries, transit and some private businesses, B.C. does not have any public mask mandate. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is on record as opposing the idea of a mandatory vaccine.
British Columbia has also never implemented a “lockdown.”
While most businesses and services have implemented COVID-19 protocols and mass gatherings have been restricted, even at the height of the pandemic in the March and April, only dine-in restaurants, bars and personal service businesses such as salons were closed by public health order.
Vladisav Sobolev, founder of the group “hugs over masks,” told Global News the event offered a forum for like-minded people to come together and get an “alternative perspective to the mainstream media.”
“Unfortunately at this point, the brainwashed fear and propaganda has been created for the last seven months,” he said.
It was an opinion many in the crowd shared, with numerous people at the event shouting “fake news” at Global News staff.
Many people in the crowd espoused debunked myths that wearing a mask is harmful because it causes a person to breathe in carbon dioxide or bacteria or causes cancer.
Public health officials are in wide agreement that non-medical masks are an important tool to stop the spread of COVID-19, though they say physical distancing and handwashing remain the most effective tactics.
BC Libertarian Party president Donald Wilson told Global News he was at the rally because he felt the hospitalization and death rate did not justify restrictions placed on the public.
“It doesn’t seem to be a rational fear to me anymore,” he said. “I see people are not spending time with their families, they’re not spending time with their loved ones in the hospital … not to mention all the jobs that have been lost as well.”
Flags and signs supporting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory — which the FBI has labelled a domestic terrorism threat — or making unproven claims about 5G radiation or Bill Gates were also present, though in lower numbers than a similar rally in September.
Advertised speakers for the event included a long list of controversial anti-vaccine activists, along with conspiracy theorist David Icke.
Icke has been accused of anti-Semitism and is best known for once declaring he was the son of God, and his conspiracy theory that a secret cabal of reptilian humanoids is running the world.
Vancouver city councillor Pete Fry called the event “disappointing” but not surprising given the rise of conspiracy theories and populism across North America.
“We’re in a very scary time, a very uncertain time, and folks are grasping for all sorts of options and alternatives. It’s not necessarily helpful and it does create a larger risk for the general public,” he said.
“I’m very concerned for our frontline workers who have no choice in the matter, and I’m obviously concerned as well for the folks who are attending this rally. I wouldn’t wish them to get sick, but that may well be the likely outcome.”
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, BC Ferries was forced to delay unloading its 8:30 a.m. Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay sailing after it said a number of anti-mask protesters headed to the Lower Mainland became belligerent and verbally aggressive to other passengers.
The company said at least 12 people had been given a one-day ban from using the ferry service.