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Questions about police enforcement of COVID-19 rules arise after three separate weekend events in Alberta

Last Updated Feb 16, 2021 at 6:25 pm MDT

EDMONTON – Three separate police interactions around Alberta’s COVID-19 public health orders caught public attention over the long weekend.

In Calgary, the leader of an anti-lockdown protest at a mall appears to be embraced by a police officer.

In Parkland County, for the third straight Sunday, GraceLife church defied a closure order over refusal to follow occupancy limits and mask mandates. Mounties were there but no tickets were issued as the RCMP says “further investigation is required.”

And Indigenous activist group The Bear Clan was kicked out of a transit station into minus-25-degree weather while the group was feeding Edmonton’s vulnerable population. Police said they were loitering and breaking mask laws by taking them off to eat.

Observers online are raising questions about how these situations were handled by the various police services, specifically why the punishments came down on marginalized people and why no tickets were issued in the other two events.

“It is one of those remarkably challenging situations that police find themselves in,” said Doug King, justice studies professor at Mount Royal University.

King says it’s hard to draw a connection with what happened in Edmonton–where police have admitted their officer could have done a better job of supporting a vulnerable population and agreed to meet with the Bear Clan–to the events in Calgary and Parkland County where the officers were likely following strict orders from higher-ups.

He says officers are likely walking a thin line.

“If you become too heavy-handed and, for example, bust into an ongoing service to enforce the law, you’re going to be bringing people off the sidelines into that conversation.”

He believes police were attempting to not escalate the situation or spark further protests and didn’t have the manpower to identify every person in a church or at a protest for tickets.

But the Canadian Anti-Hate Network calls this policing the far right with kid gloves, adding in the case of the Calgary protest, it makes the city more susceptible to violence because extremists think the police have their backs.

And that feeling of having allies in the Calgary Police Service could be particularly problematic with a large anti-lockdown rally planned for next week, with known extremists scheduled to attend and speak.

RELATED: Anti-pandemic-restriction rally promotes speakers with varied agendas

With GraceLife, RCMP would not comment Tuesday but have previously said officers were gathering evidence for future action. Pastor James Coates was arrested Tuesday according to his lawyer.

“There’s a closure order, which without enforcement is just a piece of paper on the door,” said James Kitchen, Coates’ lawyer through the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

He adds describes the relationship between Coates and the RCMP as “amicable”, adding he believes it’s a “cultural” thing specific to Alberta.

“It’s a different culture in Ontario, for example, where you see the sledgehammer approach with the Church of God and Adam Scully’s Barbeque.”

But King thinks police were trying to avoid a scene–action that could embolden extremists to protest.

“They are walking a tightrope. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes because one slip and things could get worse.”

But it’s actions like this that have anti-hate groups concerned, knowing the number of known far-right extremists who have been seen protesting.

As for GraceLife, RCMP confirmed to CityNews that a leader at the church, Paul Claassen, is a former Mountie who served in a leadership role.

The RCMP says his former connection to the police force has no impact on the investigation.