Jody MacPherson is a resident of The Beltline documenting the ongoing counter-protests in her neighbourhood.
Sometime in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 19, a convoy of vehicles arrived in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood, encircling Central Memorial Park on three sides – leaving only a no parking zone to keep access open to a nearby health centre.
The vehicles were part of “The Great Canadian Cruise” and are, even now, on their way to Victoria, BC.
Walking over on Saturday morning, a court injunction obtained by the city ahead of the protests appeared to have little impact. There were minivans, buses, camper trailers, pick-ups, and a big rig truck, all with flags and out-of-province plates.
Police closed most roads within a two-block radius and access in and out of the community was limited. It felt like we were under siege. One man I spoke with said he’d never seen anything like it. He was scared and planning to move a new tenant into an apartment building across the street from the park, but was on the phone trying to delay the move-in.
The Beltline is a collection of communities in a narrow strip just south of the Bow River and the city’s downtown core. It takes its name from an old streetcar route that used to run through the area, terminating at the Calgary Stampede.
It is one of the most densely populated areas in the city, and 17 Ave. SW remains a popular destination for nightlife, restaurants and shopping. During hockey playoffs, the 12 km strip transforms into the “Red Mile” and has seen crowds of up to 100,000 people.
For the last five months, protesters have been holding gatherings at Central Memorial Park, the city’s oldest public park, directly across the street from the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre. Since then, residents have endured large numbers of vehicles parked on the street with Canadian and American flags.
On Saturday, the main rally was not set to start until 1 pm and police began leaving copies of the injunction on the windshields of vehicles. Meanwhile, Beltliners were gathering at a small park next to the historic Lougheed House and Beaulieu Gardens, about two blocks away.
Police were stationed nearby, keeping an eye on us.
On route, a local business owner told me “it’s going to be a long day,” they’ve had problems with protesters not abiding by mask rules and harassing staff. Other residents expressed frustration over the protests.
One woman who used to live nearby came down to Central Memorial Park at around 1:30 p.m. by herself. She set up her folding chair, put on her mask with the words “Home is Canada” on it and began reading her book in the middle of the mayhem. She told me it was her way of making a non-confrontational statement. She remained there most of the afternoon. No one spoke to her.
She told me that despite their Canadian flags, what the protesters were doing every Saturday was “not very Canadian.”
Bullying towards those wearing masks is highly visible at the marches. When most Beltliners choose to wear masks protesters ridicule, question, and imply it is stupid or ignorant. Some go as far as deliberately coughing on us. Others claim we are “antifa” and/or being directed by “BLM.”
Eventually, when the protesters realized they were not getting their usual police escort through the streets, they dispersed and ended up at Calgary City Hall about six blocks away.
They did not march down 17th Ave. on March 19 as planned.
Shortly after the bulk of protesters left, a group of Beltliners walked over to Central Memorial Park to stand and quietly hold their signs. Walking in, there was a strong feeling of trepidation, due to the remaining COVID-Conspiracy protesters as well as the injunction and the way police treated us last time.
A good many of the convoy supporters returned from city hall after we arrived and scuffles broke out. One member of our group had a “Good Night White Pride” flag which became the focus of most of the arguments, resulting in pushing and shouting.
Several arrests were made and there is conflicting information but officially, Police Chief Mark Neufeld stated at a news conference that all of the arrests involved protesters from the convoy. At least one counter-protester was detained that I saw, and of those arrested was the driver of a big rig truck caught honking closer to city hall. His truck was also towed.
I watched as a couple walking their small dog through the park began shouting at the protesters, asking them to leave. Overhead, the police could be seen on a nearby rooftop, flying a drone and recording the entire spectacle.
Police moved quite aggressively with officers on horseback and on foot to push the two groups apart, driving the protesters out of the park at the east end. A small group of Beltliners remained at the west end of the park.
Beltline Faces Months Of Protests
While community opposition to the protests has been mounting, the gatherings in the park by members of the COVID-conspiracy movement followed a familiar pattern. Starting with amplified speeches and music in the park, streets are forced to close down as the march moves south and typically turns onto 17th Ave. with a police escort leading them. The marches grew in size to between 2,000 to 5,000 people in February 2022, around the time of the Ottawa occupation.
None of this had any of the required permits or licenses. At a Calgary Police Commission meeting in February, CPS Deputy Chief Chad Tawfik said weekly anti-vaccination and anti-mask protests had run up $2 million in policing costs in 2021 alone.
Some residents had already been hanging signs of their own on their balconies supporting healthcare workers, one reading “Masks Save Lives, Vaccines Save Lives, Ignorance Kills.”
Reading the signs throughout the neighbourhood, I realized I was not alone in despairing over the weekly marches. So when some residents began organizing a counter-protest, I decided to come out to document the action.
After spending weeks observing the protests, I had become familiar with their wild conspiracy theories and messaging.
“It’s time you got fitted for a new tie, Kenney,” read one of the signs leading the march on Saturday. This was alongside multiple calls to “Free Pastor Artur,” a man accused of inciting violence with a number of statements at Coutts, Alberta, including "for freedom to be preserved, people must be willing to sacrifice their lives.” Artur Pawlowski is a well-known anti-LGTBQ2S+ pastor who blamed the 2013 floods in Alberta on the “perversions of homosexuality.”
Other protesters held signs stating “the Mark of the Beast is in the Jab” and other extremist references, as well as speakers on megaphones calling the female counter-protesters “Jezebels.”
In addition to the above, there are many veiled references to antisemitism including multiple signs with the word “globalist,” references to the World Economic Forum and populist conspiracy theories about “elites.” One sign pointed directly to a website run by a known antisemitic conspiracy theorist and sovereign citizen, Christopher James Pritchard. His website is home to denials of the Holocaust and proclaims “satanic Jews [are] controlling [the] money system.”
COVID conspiracies are also on full display, with references to the “Great Reset,” the implantation of microchips via vaccination, and the “plandemic.”
There has also been “Pureblood” merchandise sold on-site at Central Memorial Park every week and the clothing is worn by the marchers. American flags, insignia from the “Patriot Party” (a group kicked off of Facebook) and known agitators who have bragged online they were present on Jan. 6 at the Capitol insurrection are also prominent every week that I have attended.
When Beltliners and our supporters first showed up on Feb. 26, we watched the protesters from the sidewalk and silently held up signs. A smoke bomb was thrown at us by one of the marchers that very first week.
No one was hurt and no one was arrested.
The second week (March 5), before the march even reached our small group of 35 people, someone sympathetic to the protesters came up behind us and violently pushed a Beltliner to the ground, objecting to their anti-fascist sign. Police apprehended and detained the man. No arrests were made.
We had been joined that week by two Black women, Adora Nwofor and Taylor McNallie, community leaders and activists for Black Lives Matter. When they stepped onto the street and into the path of the 1,000+ marchers on 17th Ave., the Beltliners, including myself, followed their lead. With police acting as a barrier and redirecting the marchers off the Red Mile, the protesters put up very little resistance.
On March 12, the third week of the protests, when we arrived at the intersection of 17th Ave. SW and 5A Street as planned, the police formed a line with their bikes to block us.
While we waited behind the police line, the main marchers (1,000+) simply went through and around a police line at 5th Street and began walking towards our smaller, masked group. A number of protesters again simply walked around the second police line (including the police on mounted horses) and took up positions behind us taunting and jeering, calling us “losers” and yelling for the police to “do your job.”
Not long after this, the police began using bikes to push the Beltliners backwards. I was behind the people in the front row and did not receive any injuries myself, but saw videos and photos on social media later that a number of residents had received injuries from bike handlebars being shoved into their bodies by police.
After about 30-40 tense minutes, police reinforcements showed up and moved to encircle us. Police then let the main group of convoy marchers through on the sidewalk while keeping us contained on the road.
When videos of the police action appeared on social media, Calgarians were outraged. City council called an emergency meeting and Mayor Jyoti Gondek demanded answers from the police. The police commission called a special meeting and announced the city had obtained a temporary injunction to be applied anywhere in the city, for all protests.
The injunction gave them extra powers to arrest people on both sides. They made that clear.
At the end of the day, many of us were left wondering how and why it had come to this. After months of police escorting the protesters carrying messages of hate, violence and fear every week, a small group of Beltliners had to stand in front of the marchers, at their own risk, to say “no more.”
We don’t know if the protesters will be back at Central Memorial Park next Saturday, but we are preparing for every possible scenario.