Protesters against COVID-19 restrictions, vaccines gather outside Royal Alexandra Hospital

A group protesting COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines crowded outside Edmonton’s largest hospital Monday afternoon despite officials warning them not to obstruct health care operations.

Approximately 150 protesters gathered near the front steps of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, held anti-vaccine signs and challenged health care staff about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Counter-protesters stood across the street, reminding those on the steps of the hospital that they were blocking access to a health care facility.

Premier Jason Kenney and Mayor Don Iveson expressed concerns about the protest and encouraged enforcement if services are disrupted.

"Today’s protests must in no way obstruct the important operations of our hospitals, including the arrival and departure of emergency vehicles and workers. Blocking an ambulance is most definitely not peaceful protest," Kenney said. "In Alberta, local law enforcement is fully empowered to enforce the law in a timely fashion, including the potential use of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act."

Iveson and the Edmonton Police Service, which will attend the protest, said disruptions will not be tolerated.

All eyes are on our hospitals—which is exactly what these folks want—but for all of us looking on with concern for our health care professionals, patients and their families, know that neither EPS, nor Edmontonians will tolerate interference with essential health care ops. #yegcc https://t.co/0wyLU2zKP2

— Don Iveson (@doniveson) September 13, 2021

More hospital protests are expected across Canada on Monday.

NURSE EXCHANGES WITH PROTESTER

Benita Pedersen, an organizer of the rally, said the location was chosen to ensure their message was heard.

“In order for us to be effective in making our voices heard, we had to move to a location where we were sure to be noticed,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen challenged a nurse leaving the hospital saying, “Any system that is forcing employees to take a vaccine is wrong. That’s a form of tyranny.”

“No, it isn’t,” responded Rebecca Riches, a nurse working on a COVID-19 floor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

“If you see what we are dealing with in there, you would understand,” Riches said.

“It is bad,” she added. “Don’t tell me it’s not as bad as it is.”

The counter-protesters across the street said they felt it was important to show healthcare workers their support.

“The vast majority of Canadians support the healthcare system,” one counter-protester said. “They want everyone to get vaccinated. It’s not a question of choice. It’s a question of supporting the community.”

“Healthcare workers are stressed,” said Albert Knobbs, another counter-protester, president and founder of the Alberta Activist Collective. “Right now morale is crucial.

“None of us want to be here,” he added, “(but) these protests are unacceptable.”

HEALTH CARE STAFF ‘DEEPLY TROUBLED’

The union representing nurses and allied health care workers in Alberta says that while it recognizes Canadians' right to peacefully protest, physically blocking access to facilities to “hamper access” to care is concerning.

The United Nurses of Alberta said in a statement that it is in no way affiliated with the Canadian Frontline Nurses protest group and that it denounces the protests.

“UNA is a union representing Registered Nurses, Registered Psychiatric Nurses and allied health care workers in Alberta,” the group said. “It has a democratic structure and duly elected officials.

“Throughout the pandemic, UNA has stood consistently on the side of science. We have advocated for evidence-informed public health measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 such as social distancing, masking, and vaccination.

“It is demoralizing for nurses and other health care workers risking burnout and COVID-19 infection in hospitals and other health care settings to see people who oppose vaccination efforts interfere with access to health care facilities.”

In addition, the UNA says it is “deeply troubled” that “even a few” workers have participated in these protests.

“The few health care workers involved in these anti-vaccination protests take attention away from the important vaccination efforts by nurses and other health care workers across Canada,” the union said.

Heather Smith, UNA president, called the protests outside health facilities as “insensitive” and questioned the “appropriateness” of them happening.

“Health care workers for the past 18 months have risked a whole lot and put off a whole lot, in terms of personal things,” Smith said in an interview with CTV News Edmonton. “Many of those people inside (the hospitals) will actually be caring for COVID positive patients.

“Today in Alberta is not the time to be (protesting) in a public way that could in fact make a horrible, horrible situation even worse.”