Sunday afternoon’s walk took an unexpected turn, when I spotted a group of demonstrators at the intersection of Opeongo and Bay Streets in downtown Barry’s Bay.
As I got closer, I was able to read their homemade signs which had slogans like “End Tyranny,” “End the Ontario Lockdown” and “Stop Living in Fear: ‘Do not fear for I am with you (Isaiah 41:10)’” and I noted they were not wearing masks or social-distancing.
I kept my distance, but asked one young man a few questions.
Because I didn’t recognize him (but then I don’t recognize very many people in my hometown anymore), my first question was, “What is your connection to this community?” I don’t know if he interpreted my sweeping hand gesture as meaning the village or the group of protesters, but his immediate, enthusiastic and unprompted response was that his sister had attended Seat of Wisdom College and that his parents and grandparents have been visiting the area for years. He declined to confirm whether he, himself, was a student at the college, and he preferred not to comment when I asked him if the demonstration had been organized by the college.
He was the only individual I spoke to. The folks I saw appeared to be young adults and I estimated twelve to fifteen of them, but other Valley residents who passed by and took photos or videos have suggested on social media that there may have been as many as twenty demonstrators including those they identified as college students, children and, alarmingly, health workers.
Some of those residents have contacted the municipality’s bylaw officer, the Renfrew County District Health Unit, the OPP and Seat of Wisdom College. The College has responded with what is becoming its stock answer: they “do their best to enforce all COVID-19 protocols on campus” and they “encourage [their] students to obey all civil laws and protocols off campus” and take no responsibility for their off-campus behaviour.
Based on my encounter, I knew only that the brother of a former student was part of Sunday’s demonstration. I didn’t know if, in fact, there were college students or former college students involved. I did know, however, that for several months, there have been complaints and comments made in the community and reported in two local news sources that Seat of Wisdom students have been refusing to wear masks in local stores.
At the very least, the College administration should convince its students that their failure to support and follow provincial and county COVID-19 protocols is upsetting the “townies” and creating a public relations headache for the College. This isn’t just an unauthorized bonfire on the hill across from St. Hedwig’s church or a boisterous house party in a quiet neighbourhood. It’s a bit more serious.
In the last three months, Renfrew County’s COVID-19 numbers have grown from 30 to 306 and the Madawaska Valley’s from 1 to 21. On February 8, we had two active cases in the municipality. These numbers are low when compared to other parts of Ontario, but they indicate that life in sheltered valley in the hills does not make us immune.
As of Wednesday February 10, Renfrew County returns to the green level of the province’s COVID-19 Response Framework. That’s good news, but with our three-month increase and the spectre of more transmissible variants, all permanent and non-permanent residents of the Madawaska Valley and Renfrew County owe it to their neighbours and hosts to abide by provincial and county protocols.
No one wants to wear a mask and no one wants to limit their interaction with family and friends. Working and studying from home is very challenging. No business owner wants to close, lay off employees or impose rules on customers for any period of time. Shopping for groceries or visiting the LCBO alone is not much fun. It is inconvenient to limit our visits to the post office once a week or to order ahead and pick-up hardware or building supplies. People are feeling isolated and lonely. Life has become difficult for all of us. Instead of fabricating conspiracies and railing about tyranny, suck it up and do your part for the good of your community. Or, if that doesn’t appeal to you, take the advice my mother gave me when I was “whinging” about some unpleasantness or suffering. “Offer it up for the souls in Purgatory.”
Locally-connected publications encourage anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists
Sadly, Sunday’s demonstrators are not alone in the Madawaska Valley. Comments posted on social media reveal that there a few other anti-maskers, anti-lockdown activists and conspiracy theorists. There are also two right-wing Catholic publications with local connections which encourage them.
Readers have already learned about an online publication called Catholic Insight in an article published by The Madawaska Valley Current in September 2020. That is when readers were introduced to Catholic Insight and its editor who is a founder of Seat of Wisdom College, teaches there and is a resident of the Madawaska Valley. At that time, the Current questioned whether his views on facemasks might have influenced some College students to disregard requests to wear masks in local stores. He and the College both rejected the possibility that what a professor writes in his spare time could influence students. Hopefully that is true, because this comment published in Catholic Insight after the storming of the US Capitol by protestors in January is downright alarming. “If words and honest debate and freedom of expression, and now freedom of assembly, if any recourse to changing the regime and its laws, are more and more verboten, or perceived as such, what recourse do the people have, except violence?”
No doubt many Madawaska Valley residents followed those distressing events at the United States’ Capitol. Usually, I don’t pay much attention to American politics, but that day, I was following up on a local connection – another online publication, Lifesitenews.
Lifesitenews says it is “dedicated to issues of culture, life and family” and it produces US and Canadian editions. Judging by its successful fundraising campaigns, I suspect it has tens of thousands of readers across North America. Lifesitenews’ co-founder, some of its editors and writers live in, or have ties to, the Madawaska Valley.
In the weeks leading up to January 6, articles in Lifesitenews promoted the notion that the US election results were fraudulent and encouraged its readers to join a march on Washington to support Trump. As a matter of fact, as I followed the storming of the Capitol on CBC Newsworld, I was also checking Lifesitenews because it also had a reporter on the ground in Washington. That very day, Lifesitenews posted an interview with a young man who had been part of the mob that forced its way into the Capitol. He has since been arrested. Two days later, Lifesitenews was seeking tips and videos from the Capitol protest in order to get at the supposed truth that was being ignored by “a one-sided, general condemnation and narrative by the mainstream media and social media conglomerates.”
A quick survey of the site reveals its writers reject masking; question the authenticity of the pandemic; attribute the pandemic to China’s development of biological weapons; promote the notion of “The Great Reset” conspiracy; oppose COVID-19 vaccines because they are developed from a cell line obtained from an aborted fetus; and consider Pope Francis (who along with Pope Emeritus Benedict has been vaccinated) as dangerously liberal if not heretical.
We are the centre of something
When I was about ten years old, my dad took me shopping for new clothes at Michael’s Shop for Men. It was located on Barry’s Bay main drag where Rural Outreach Employment Services is now, close to the scene of Sunday’s demonstration. The only item I recall was a T-shirt, likely produced by the local tourist board, which proclaimed “The Madawaska Valley: Hub of the Universe.” I remember it because the first time I wore it to school, a smart-aleck quipped: “That should say ’Arsehole of Canada’.”
Like most folks in the Madawaska Valley, I appreciate “a good one” and that comment made me laugh, even though I disagreed with it. I still disagree with it, and I believe most readers would disagree with it too. Our residents have made substantial contributions locally, provincially and nationally in a variety of fields; our communities are generally close-knit and supportive; our culture is unique and we live a beautiful natural setting. We Valley folk are fiercely proud of our home, and even though there might be a few among us who reject Copernicus’ theory, I know most of us realize that we aren’t the centre of the universe.
No, the Madawaska Valley is not the hub of the universe, but it is quickly becoming a centre of something – something more disturbing and damaging to our reputation than a child in the 1970s could have ever imagined – a centre of right-wing conspiracy theories.
photos Mark Woermke
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