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EDITORIAL: A race to the bottom

"We are in the ninth inning of this pandemic. Wearing a face mask may be an inconvenience, but can’t we collectively keep up our vigilance for a few more months?"

Sometimes, a protest is just a protest. But in the case of an anti-lockdown rally at the Alberta Legislature this past weekend, that protest became a cover for something much worse.

Racism, extremism, religious fanaticism – all of these were on display in the myriad videos that emerged from that protest. Despite being billed as a rally for people who have suffered under COVID-19 restrictions, it was apparent that vocal members of the protest had a different and darker agenda.

In recent months, we've heard increasing frustration with masks, restrictions and vaccines. We've heard it said that Albertans have been pushed to the edge – that they're fed up, they want their freedoms back and an end to government overreach. Lives and livelihoods are on the line. The anger with lockdown measures festers and grows.

Then the tiki torches come out.

As hundreds of people defied Alberta's COVID-19 rules and descended on the grounds of the Legislature this past weekend to decry public health restrictions, some demonstrators lit torches, evoking images of Charlottesville's 2017 white supremacist torch rally. It didn't help that members of hate groups like Soldiers of Odin and Urban Infidels were reportedly in the thick of it.

What was “officially” intended to be a protest about the lockdown restrictions and the resulting impact to many Albertans’ livelihood was reduced by an extremist fringe element that simply couldn’t let a good protest go to waste, akin to a good old social media pile-on. It is impossible not to empathize with the small business owner who has rent to pay and a family to feed. Their plight was washed out by the antics of people whose intentions were anything but honourable.

Protesting the lockdown is one thing, but protesting the wearing of masks is absurd in a global health crisis that has so far claimed nearly 2.5 million lives worldwide, with the looming threat of even more infectious variants hanging over us. Alberta has reported 1,800 deaths from the virus in the past year (for all you COVID skeptics out there, that compares with 41 influenza deaths during the 2019 flu season, according to provincial data.) But if these protesters were looking for the fastest way to delegitimize their own movement, they found it by allowing their protests to become a vehicle for extremist groups and racist symbolism. The rally's ties to white supremacy were clear before it began – Premier Jason Kenney even called out the use of an image from that notorious Charlottesville rally to promote this event, writing in a statement on Twitter that "prominent racists promoted Saturday's protest at the Legislature."

We are in the ninth inning of this pandemic. Wearing a face mask may be an inconvenience, but can’t we collectively keep up our vigilance for a few more months?

Nerves are frayed. Frustration is boiling over. Polarization takes reason out of words and actions. We now have people flagrantly violating public health orders; churches refusing to protect the health of their congregations by adhering to gathering limits; and, to top it all off, racists using the concerns of Albertans to get their message out there. It's a race to the bottom – and no matter who wins, we all lose.

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