The start of 2021 has been a rough time for Canadian anti-maskers. For the better part of a year, the conspiracy movement in Canada acted with relative impunity but as the pandemic stretches on, and stricter lockdowns are enacted, police are beginning to act, arresting and charging leaders of the movement and ticketing anti-mask protesters.
In some major cities, police say they’re upping their efforts against the groups. “While we recognize the right to lawful protest, the existing emergency orders prohibit large gatherings of more than five people,” Toronto police tweeted on February 6. “As a result of these orders, we are enhancing our enforcement when it comes to large gatherings."
A Toronto police spokeswoman told VICE World News that police have made 18 arrests at the protests—including five this weekend—and (as of February 2) issued 171 provincial tickets for protests, parties, and large gatherings since the start of Ontario’s stay-at-home order on January 14.
Lamont Daigle, one of the leaders of the anti-mask group the Line, was arrested and charged at the biggest recurring anti-mask rally in Canada, in Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square, on January 16. Kelly Anne Frakus, another prominent anti-masker, was arrested in a rather ugly scene at the same rally and handed a ban from attending the protest. Farkus pushed her luck, and was rearrested for violating her bail conditions at the end of the month.
Chris Saccoccia, the affluent son of a wealthy home developer turned anti-mask leader, was arrested on January 23 and charged with being a common nuisance and four counts of mischief, and, according to Saccoccia tweets, was temporarily banned from Yonge and Dundas Square (he’s since tweeted the ban was lifted).
The sight of actual law enforcement has evaporated the anti-maskers' tentative support for police. Leaders previously would lavish praise on them for their handling of the rallies; now, videos of the arrests have gone viral within the movement as evidence of government oppression. On the day of Farkus' arrest, a 22-year-old man was charged with assaulting a police officer.
“You guys are gonna burn in hell. You guys are dead,” a prominent member of the anti-mask group Hugs Over Masks screamed at the police while livestreaming Farkus’ arrest. “You’re a dead man. Watch!”
This threat of escalation comes after a month in which the anti-maskers saw the strongest resistance from authorities yet. Drew, an anti-fascist researcher who follows the anti-mask movement closely, told VICE World News that things began changing for the worse for anti-maskers in December.
“By then southwest Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and some parts of B.C. had all given fines and Calgary and Toronto did before moving onto arrests and charges,” said Drew. “Police only reacted when the problem got so bad it could no longer be ignored."
If authorities hadn't waited so long to take these various groups seriously, "a preventative approach could have been able to have been pursued early on to nip this problem in the bud, and may have involved less sensational and brutal arrests,” Drew said.
The crackdown and increased tensions with police is happening across the country. In Hamilton, protesters are arrested every week now, with four arrested last weekend. In Edmonton, police began handing out tickets handed out to anti-maskers for contravening the city's mask in December although many, including Mayor Don Iveson, have been critical of Edmonton Police response. In Vancouver, a police officer recently had his leg broken during an alleged assault by an anti-masker. In late December, Montreal police handed out $400,000 worth of tickets to anti-maskers at a large rally.
God isn’t helping the anti-maskers, either. In the small Ontario town of Alymer, a pastor continues his holy war against the lockdown orders despite parishioners—including his son—routinely being charged. Police say they’re looking over footage of the group's latest service and will charge those involved. In the Manitoba town of Steinbach, another pastor is also raging against the lockdowns, reportedly to grow his church. Recently, Hugs Over Masks held a rally there in mid-January and 10 people were ticketed.
It’s no wonder the solidarity and the nerves of the majority of the anti-maskers seem to be fraying. A week after his arrest, the Line and Daigle shared a post urging their followers to not attend the weekly rally.
“Protesters and organizers at these protests are calling police Nazis, and at some point yelling and making threats that the people have more guns than the police, as well as threats of violence,” reads the statement. “We need to be very clear that we do not condone this type of behaviour from our movement.”
“I don't swear at the police. I swear at what they are representing. I swear at their masks. I swear at them violating the charter,” wrote one upset anti-masker in response. “We are swearing at everything these costumed humans are doing that is immoral and illegal. And it feels really really good to let them know.”
Some group members called Daigle a coward or divisive for trying to distance himself from the more aggressive parts of the movement.
Despite the crackdown, the die-hards and the leaders, many of whom attempt to make money or feed off of the attention of the movement, are still kicking around. And with the lifeblood of the movement primarily in large Facebook groups and other social media strongholds, the online conversation is as boisterous as it ever was.
Morgan Yew, a citizen journalist and filmmaker who has been observing the Yonge and Dundas protests for months, said while attendance is dwindling the die-hards are still there and are testing their luck against law enforcement. This allows the group to “mutate and learn what they can and cannot do,” he said.
“Yes, the numbers are dropping. Yes, people are discouraged. But I feel like all of that is just temporary,” Yew told VICE World News. “There's an emotional component to this because people have been doing this now since June. What I would call the true believers, like the core members of these groups, the followers, they're very invested and they're not going away.”
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