Hundreds rally outside Alberta church closed by health officials

The demonstrators carried a variety of messaging, much of it in opposition to public health restrictions. (CBC - image credit)
The demonstrators carried a variety of messaging, much of it in opposition to public health restrictions. (CBC - image credit)

Hundreds of people demonstrated Sunday outside the shuttered GraceLife Church west of Edmonton.

Alberta Health Services closed the church last week after it repeatedly defied public health orders, with hundreds of people attending services. Chain link fences were set up around the site in Parkland County.

The crowd began gathering along the road adjacent to the church early Sunday morning as hymns played over loudspeakers. Demonstrators carried signs with a variety of messages, some decrying vaccines, public health restrictions and communism.

An increased police presence by the RCMP included additional traffic enforcement officers deployed to the area.

Police said in a statement they would only use the level of intervention necessary to ensure safety and maintain peace, order and security.

Dozens of police vehicles shut off access to roads around the church while a helicopter flew overhead. A large line of at least 30 officers faced the outer fence.

There was a tense moment around noon when a group splintered from the crowd and tore down part of the fence. RCMP and others from the crowd pushed back the group and re-established the fence.

About 150 of the protesters trespassed on Enoch Cree Nation land across the road from the church site, parking their cars and vandalising Enoch Chief Billy Morin's vehicle, said Enoch spokesperson Tanya Cardinal.

One trespasser attempted to assault an Enoch councillor, the First Nation added in a statement released Sunday.

"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," Morin said.

An RCMP spokesperson could not immediately confirm any arrests or tickets issued during the protest when reached by CBC Radio-Canada Sunday afternoon.

The crowd began to disperse shortly before 2 p.m. The trespassers had mostly vacated Enoch land by 4 p.m., the First Nation said.

In a statement released Sunday evening through the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, GraceLife church stated that its congregants were not at the protest.

RCMP deployed additional officers during the demonstration at GraceLife Church on Sunday.
RCMP deployed additional officers during the demonstration at GraceLife Church on Sunday.(Jordan Omstead/CBC)

In a media statement Wednesday, AHS said it had "physically closed" the church and would prevent access until the church "can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta's chief medical officer of health's restrictions."

"With COVID-19 cases increasing and the more easily-transmitted and potentially more severe variants becoming dominant, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans," AHS said.

On Sunday, the province reported 1,183 new cases of COVID-19 and 942 new cases involving variants of concern. There were 7,217 active variant cases, about 50.5 per cent of active cases in Alberta.

Between July 10 last year and Tuesday of last week, AHS said it has received 105 complaints from the public about the church.

AHS said inspectors have conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10, 2020, and violations were observed at each visit.

GraceLife's Pastor James Coates was charged in February with violating COVID-19 public health orders.

After he was charged, Coates was jailed for refusing to comply with a bail condition that he only hold services in compliance with public health orders. In early March, his lawyers appealed with the argument that it would go against the pastor's conscience before God not to lead worshippers.

Coates spent 35 days in custody before pleading guilty to a charge of breaching bail and was fined $1,500. He returned to the pulpit on March 28.

The church was also charged as an entity for exceeding allowable capacity at Sunday services in February.