Hundreds of people descend on GraceLife Alta. church protesting government closure
EDMONTON -- Hundreds of people were seen singing hymns, chanting, and gathering outside the fenced-off GraceLife Church west of Edmonton on Sunday.
Chain-link fencing was erected Wednesday around GraceLife after its congregation met for months in violation of provincial COVID-19 orders.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) said it "physically closed" the building and will be preventing access to it until GraceLife "can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health's restrictions."
Dozens of RCMP cruisers controlled traffic at roadways around GraceLife Sunday and blocked off the north entrance.
Mounties also had tow trucks to remove parked cars blocking highway access.
A convoy identifying themselves as “patriots” drove from Calgary to Edmonton on Sunday to protest GraceLife’s closure.
More than 20 cars left the Deerfoot City parking lot in front of the Rec Room in Calgary around 6:30 a.m.
The convoy was scheduled to meet with “fellow patriots” in Red Deer at Gasoline Alley to then arrive at GraceLife for 10 a.m.
In addition to the convoy, an estimated 1,000 people gathered outside the church.
Some protesters were shouting, “Only tyrants fear the lord” and “Listen Gestapo, we are a free country.”
A few people successfully ripped down the fence surrounding the church as RCMP held on to it from the other side. Another group of protesters helped RCMP put the fence back in place as others shouted, “Jesus would not take down the fence.”
Protesters in front of GraceLife Church on April 11, 2021 (CTV News Edmonton)
RCMP issued a statement to media saying that they are on scene and are acting to preserve “peace” and “maintain public safety.”
“The RCMP will use only the level of intervention necessary to ensure the safety of all citizens and to maintain peace, order, and security.”
“The RCMP uses necessary measures to protect the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, to promote the safety of all citizens, to enforce laws and to maintain peace and order,” RCMP said.
“In turn, it must be recognized that while everyone has a right to peaceful freedom of expression; the general public, local residents and businesses also have the right to a safe environment.”
AHS declined to comment on the protests.
GraceLife Church pastor James Coates was previously charged with two violations of the Public Health Act (PHA) and failing to comply with a condition of his undertaking. It was not known if Coates was at the church Sunday.
The pastor pleaded guilty to a lesser count the last charge as part of a deal that saw one of the two PHA charges dropped.
His three-day trial on the outstanding PHA charge begins on May 3.
PROTESTERS DISRUPT ENOCH CREE NATION RESIDENTS
Some protesters who were trying to find parking at GraceLife ended up parking on nearby Enoch Cree Nation land.
Chief Billy Morin of Enoch First Nation posted a Facebook Live video that has since been taken down where he was seen directing traffic and asking people to refrain from parking around residents of the Enoch Cree Nation land.
“This is not public, this is the First Nation,” he said. “You are not allowed here… This is private property.
“You are not allowed to come on a First Nation and park wherever… you want.”
Morin said his vehicle was vandalized in the process.
One person was also arrested for allegedly attempting to assault an Enoch councillor, according a news release from Enoch Cree Nation.
“I didn’t know,” one protester who parked on the Enoch Cree Nation land said in the video. “We are in a hurry to stand up for our people over there.”
Another protester said, “We just want to go to church.”
RCMP said in a news release that parking is not permitted on Enoch Cree First Nation territory.
According to the release from Enoch Cree Nation, around 150 people “trespassed” onto the First Nation’s territory. They said some people left when they were asked, but “others continued trespassing for 6 hours.”
“Although I respect GraceLife protesters’ right to protest, right to worship, and right to free speech, I strongly condemn their illegal trespassing on our land, their vandalization of a Nation member’s vehicle, and their blatant disrespect of our sovereignty as a proud First Nation,” said Morin in the release.
The First Nation set up a checkpoint at the area where the incidents occurred which will remain in place for two weeks.
“This incident demonstrates the need for more public understanding and recognition of First Nations sovereignty and treaty rights,” said Morin.
'TAKE COVID SERIOUSLY': KENNEY
In a media availability Saturday, Premier Jason Kenney was asked about GraceLife and if he had any message for people planning on going to the church Sunday.
“My message for any Albertan would be to take COVID seriously and to keep people safe,” he said. “My message to people of faith in particular would be if you believe in the sanctity of human life please act accordingly.”
“This virus is real.”
Kenney added that if people were to gather, that they should follow the public health restrictions by staying physically distanced between cohorts, wear masks, and limit physical contact.
“It would be tragic if a gathering would result in a superspreader event.
“The irony of this case is that Alberta has had the greatest protection for the exercise of religious freedom, including the freedom of worship, of any province in Canada.”
The premier went on to say that Alberta, unlike other provinces in Canada, has never fully suspended churches or places of worship ability to gather during the pandemic but has only limited the amount of people that can attend services.
“We have about 10,000 places of worship in Alberta that have worked very hard to comply with the guidelines, to keep their congregants and the community safe. We have apparently one, maybe a couple of others, that have refused to do that.
“So I would say thank you to the 10,000 faith communities that have carefully followed the guidelines as best they can to respect the sanctity of human life and to protect the vulnerable.”