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Anti-mask ‘freedom fighters’ in Sudbury sharing tips in private Facebook group

‘“The government is bought out by big pharma and the elite. Put these views aside and stand up together’

The outcry from some people against wearing face masks inside public buildings and stores appears to be dominating social media discussion in Sudbury and now some members of of an anti-mask or freedom-to-choose group are alleging they have been harassed, intimidated and threatened for their beliefs.

The issue was raised in a post on the Spotted in Sudbury Facebook page this past weekend. The post claims a Sudbury woman was entering places of business without a mask with the intent of "causing a scene" and picking fights with store staff over the mask issue. 

It was not defined whether the woman was objecting on any medical grounds or on you-hurt-my-pride grounds.

Efforts by Sudbury.com to contact some of the freedom-to-choose organizers for comments were not fully successful. 

Given the names of a couple of women involved in the effort, Sudbury.com reached out by private message to speak about the issue. Only one person responded to us, saying that members protesting face-covering guidelines in Facebook posts have been "harassed, slandered and given threats of violence."

The same person said that her lawyer and the police were contacted. The other person did not respond after two attempts to speak with them.

Greater Sudbury Police Service said without the name of a complainant, it couldn’t say whether a complaint had been filed. Sudbury.com provided a name in confidence linked to this group and police replied they did not have a complaint involving that person.

The private Facebook group we have been referring to is called Sudbury Ontario FREEDOM Keepers, which numbers roughly 285 members. To join, a prospective member has to agree to several conditions.

"We are Pro Freedom," a popup reads when a person requests to join. "Any pro mandatory vax or pro mask comments will be deleted. This isn't a group to debate this topic. This is a group for fellow freedom fighters to come together for support and stand united," the page continued.

Another condition of discussion for the freedom page is "No Politics."

"Both Liberals and Conservatives are welcome as there are freedom keepers on both sides,” the popup reads. “The government is bought out by big pharma and the elite. Put these views aside and stand up together." 

No mention was made of other political parties, and abortion was also listed as a forbidden topic by the freedom group.  

"No abortion or anti abortion posts. This group is for people to come together on the current CV pandemic to stand up for our freedoms before they get stripped away one by one."

The group is private, but a reader who was concerned about the group’s actions was admitted to the Facebook group and provided to Sudbury.com with screenshots of various discussions occurring between group members.

One person asked if they would be denied entry if they went to Costco without a mask.

The member was advised not to worry, just to show their Costco membership card and keep walking. Another member said she did not want a mask and had to wait for a Costco manager. 

“The manager asked me and I said I was medically exempt and she replied ok,” said the member. 

Another group member claimed she was convincing others to stop wearing masks.

“While out and about today got 7 people to UNMASK! Peacefully EDUCATING one SHEEP at a time & lovin’ it,” she wrote. 

Another member claimed that many businesses are not complying with the health unit request to enforce masking.

“Went to TD Bank in New Sudbury, Giant Tiger and Canadian Tire with no hassle whatsoever!” claimed the member. She quickly added that it was a different story at Bed, Bath and Beyond, where employees asked her and her daughter to wear a mask. They declined. The manager was called.

“I told her I have a medical exemption and eyes were rolled at me from the manager and she walked away,” the member wrote.

As it turned out the cashier in the store would not serve the daughter until the daughter put a mask on. 

Another Freedom Keepers member suggested in a post that group members should meet in the parking lot before shopping at Costco. 

“The one by one we all enter one after the other, one after the other … I’m exempt , I’m exempt, I’m exempt . The person at the door would be like WTH LOL. And for once maybe there would be more non-mask wearers in the store then masked ones,” she wrote. 

Another poster in the group admonished a member of the freedom group for their behaviour..

“It’s one thing to educate people but it’s another to start a fight with frontline workers who are just trying to do their job.If you want to educate people do it in a respectful manner.”

As it stands now, and as pointed out in a previous Sudbury.com report, face masks are not mandatory in Sudbury. No bylaw has been passed to make it so. What has been mandated by Public Health Sudbury and District is that businesses must post signage advising of safety practices, such as hand-washing and physical distancing, and also asking and encouraging members of the public to wear face masks at indoor locations, especially in cases where physical distancing is not possible.

It is up to the business to determine whether to enforce the mask rule or to let it slide. 

By the same token, businesses that have concerns that members of the public not wearing masks can put store staff at risk, have the right to ask non-mask wearers to leave the store.  

A person's wish not to be imposed upon because of their beliefs about concepts like freedom carries no legal weight. Similarly, visiting a person at Sudbury's Health Sciences North also requires a person to wear a mask regardless of their political beliefs. One of the unusual characteristics of COVID-19 is that infection carriers might not know they have the disease because they have no obvious symptoms. It bolsters the argument that almost anyone can be a carrier and not be aware of it.

Even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) concedes that a grocer can argue health and safety legislation gives them the right to refuse a non-masker. But the CCLA also said human rights legislation might come into play if a person claims they have a medical exemption. 

The Ontario Government COVID-19 website has explained that all employers are mandated to protect their workers. Workers have the right to refuse to work in situations they believe are unsafe.  

While some non-maskers may claim they have difficulty breathing while their mask is on, or don't want to use a mask for medical reasons, store owners can make the decision as to whether to let that person onto the premises. It's not the sort of thing that falls under the jurisdiction of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Persons requiring medical oxygen and wearing portable oxygen apparatus would not be affected by having to wear a typical surgical mask, since the apparatus provides continuous oxygen flow, according to a myth-busting website sponsored by the World Health Organization. Nor does a surgical mask cause CO2 intoxication or impede oxygen flow. 

In the meantime, PHSD updated its Facebook page Monday afternoon with a photo of a person wearing a handmade facemask with the following caption: 

“Public Health experts support using face coverings as an additional layer of “source protection” to decrease the spread of the virus. Face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and staying home when ill, are all part of the COVID safe equation. Together, we can put the brakes on COVID-19.”

Learn more about the evidence surrounding face coverings, said the health unit post.


About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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