'There is a fracture': Winkler grapples with divide over vaccine mandates, pandemic measures

Local leaders in Winkler, Man. are trying to find ways to bridge a growing divide over mandatory vaccinations and other pandemic measures.

It’s been no secret many people in and around the southern Manitoba community have been critical of the COVID-19 response.

Over the past two days, large rallies have been held in the community, including one where speakers called for Winkler to become a so-called sanctuary city where people can live in freedom no matter their vaccination status.

Meantime, on Winkler’s Main Street, you’ll find people with mixed views on vaccine mandates.

Marie Skeavington said she wasn’t ready to get immunized against COVID-19 due to concerns over how fast vaccines were developed but now says she will because it’s a requirement of her job.

“I probably will,” Skeavington said. “Well, I have to, actually because if I’m going to run a daycare, well then I have to.”

In videos posted to YouTube of rallies Sunday and Monday near Winkler, speakers voiced opposition to mandates and other pandemic measures.

One man suggested Winkler become a so-called sanctuary city where people can live in freedom whether they choose to get the vaccine or not.

“We need to put a hedge of protection around this community because the wolves are upon us,” the man said.

Henry Siemens, the city’s deputy mayor, said council is aware of the idea but hasn’t received any official proposals. However, he didn’t rule anything out.

“In broad strokes, a sanctuary city, I wouldn’t have ever seen it used in this manner before,” Siemens said, noting he’s fully vaccinated. “When we get that we’ll have all of council review and determine the best way forward.”

He’s concerned some people feel like they’re not being heard. In addition to serving on city council, he’s also a business owner and is concerned about the impact the divide over vaccinations is having on the community’s reputation.

“We have an arrow pointed at us by media, by others — some of which is self-induced, certainly because people have been out there both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine,” Siemens said.

It’s caused a rift in the community the pastors at Emmanuel Mennonite Church are grappling with.

“We could have a rally going out every highway out of Winkler and we could have them all going out at the same time,” said Karen Schellenberg, an interim pastor at the church. “And all of them would have a different point of view on this issue: vaccinations, masks, mandates all those sorts of things.”

Schellenberg and Pastor Corey Hildebrand are not asking people in their congregation whether they’re vaccinated but feel the majority are. They’re urging people to practise compassion.

“There is a polarization between us, there is a fracture,” said Hildebrand. “But I think in the middle of it we have to remember what the problem is, that it’s the pandemic that we’re battling here and not each other.”

Some worry lives are on the line. With experts predicting a Delta driven fourth wave will hit Manitoba, Winkler-based physician Dr. Don Klassen is concerned low vaccine rates may mean a disproportionate number of people from the area will end up in hospital or intensive care.

“Nobody’s going to go around, giving them the jab in a sneaky or secret fashion but I’ve said to people this is a tool we have,” Klassen said.

Klassen is stressing to people here that tool — the vaccines — works. He pointed to long-term care as one area where it’s reduced severe outcomes from COVID-19.

Siemens said in many cases people need more information to make informed decisions. He said face-to-face conversations seem to be helping.