How neighbours and communities are divided over COVID-19 in this rural Alberta county

December 13, 2021
How neighbours and communities are divided over COVID-19 in this rural Alberta county

Visitors driving into La Crete are greeted by a wooden welcome sign declaring it “Alberta’s Last Frontier.”

The small town about 670 kilometres north of Edmonton — a tidy patch of light-coloured homes and orderly looking businesses — made headlines during the pandemic for its resistance to public health orders, and a number of its residents continue to defy them. 

On a late November day, with temperatures hovering around -20 C, people rushed from vehicles into the post office, grocery stores, banks and other businesses with little evidence that anyone was wearing a mask.

More than two months after Alberta brought in its version of a vaccine-passport program, several restaurants in this community refuse to enforce it and continue to flout masking and capacity rules. At least one under a closure order was still open for dine-in service, with staff and customers unmasked.

La Crete is one of a handful of small towns in Mackenzie County, a massive stretch of farmland and forest in northwest Alberta that covers an area bigger than New Brunswick. 

The CBC visited these three communities in Mackenzie County to hear residents talk about why the region’s vaccination rates are some of the lowest in Alberta. (CBC)

A year into Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the county makes up the bulk of what is the province’s least-immunized health region. 

Just 29.6 per cent of the roughly 25,000 residents are fully immunized. It’s the only health region in Alberta where less than 30 per cent of the total population have had both doses — far lower than the provincewide total of 72 per cent.

Still, attitudes about COVID-19 and immunization in this vast region are not homogenous, and those diverse views have created challenges for those who live there.

At odds with neighbours, church

Daniel Wall, 35, has come to hate going into town.

His life on his farm with his wife and two young daughters is largely self-sufficient. A wood stove warms their living room, a cow provides more than enough milk for the family of four, and crates of vegetables for Wall’s market garden business are piled high in the room where his wife teaches music lessons. 

Daniel Wall goes through the produce he has harvested from his small market garden near La Crete, Alta. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

He travels into La Crete about once a week to pick up other things they need. 

Like most Canadians living in places with public health restrictions, he pulls on a mask when he goes into stores. In La Crete, he’s often the only one.

“I know what people are thinking: ‘You’re scared of the disease,'” Wall said in a recent interview.

Wall and his family are Mennonite, like many families who live in the farming community. But unlike some of their friends, relatives and neighbours, they try, for the most part, to follow the provincial public health restrictions in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Evidence from around the world has shown that masks reduce transmission of the coronavirus and that people who are immunized have far greater protection against COVID-19 and severe outcomes than those who are not.

“We essentially stopped going to church because the pandemic restrictions were that they were limited to a certain size — and none of the local churches that we know of were respecting that,” said Wall.

Wall feeds the cattle that keep him and his family sustained on their farmstead, located just outside of La Crete. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

In December 2020, one local church, Grace Bible Fellowship, published a recording of a sermon by Pastor Mike Hovland where he described the province’s public health restrictions as “tyranny” and suggested church members should ignore them. 

“Each of us need to answer these questions for our own selves, but I say our fellowship and our worship is much too important for us to obey these mandates,” Hovland said.

Wall said he has wrestled with the question of whether to fully follow public health restrictions, especially as his family members don’t have any medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. 

But he also said he doesn’t buy into the conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines that have been circulating among some residents of his community. He decided to get vaccinated and says he trusts health officials when they say people sick with COVID-19 have been overwhelming hospitals in urban centres.

“I have not felt that I have a freedom of conscience to go against the restrictions just from the limited perspective of what we have here,” Wall said.  

The La Crete Health Care Centre is in the middle of the small community. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

Rate of COVID-19 remains high

Early in the pandemic, a high per-capita case rate and climbing deaths from COVID-19 in Mackenzie County worried health officials. By August 2020, Alberta Health Services was doing targeted outreach in La Crete, trying to dispel myths and rumours about the virus and encouraging people and businesses to follow public health restrictions. 

In an interview this summer, Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen told CBC that some residents were taking precautions, but others weren’t.

“People here realize that bills must be paid. You can’t put life on hold, and you protect those that you can,” he said.

The per-capita case rate in the region has been among  the highest in the province at times. Of the 3,328 recorded cases, there have been 53 deaths caused by COVID-19. In the city of Grande Prairie, which has twice the population and has had more than twice the number of cases, there have been a similar number of deaths: 55.

Wall attributes the resistance to public health measures and vaccines to a number of factors. 

Resentment about economic impact is part of it, he said, but it’s been further fuelled by a belief that limits on church capacity curtailed religious freedom and what some see as government overreach. 

“That really gave impetus to conspiracy theories and all of that stuff, saying that they’re just trying to restrict our rights and move us towards a communist state,” he said.

Cash vaccine incentive raised questions for some

Danny Friesen, 34, a Mennonite farmer and businessman in nearby Fort Vermilion, got COVID-19 himself last February. But it didn’t convince him to get vaccinated.

Despite evidence from health authorities around the world showing vaccines are safe and highly effective, and side-effects rare, news about breakthrough cases made Friesen question how well they work. 

Also driving his skepticism is the provincial government’s offer of a $100 incentive to get vaccinated. Facing the lowest vaccination rate in Canada, Alberta introduced the incentive in early September for anyone who got either a first or second dose by Oct. 14.

“If they’re paying you to take a shot, something doesn’t quite add up,” Friesen said, standing on the banks of the Peace River in Fort Vermilion.

Danny Friesen stands along the shore of Peace River in Fort Vermilion, Alta. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

Friesen said when he contracted COVID-19, he stayed home for two weeks. But he doesn’t think the government has any business imposing quarantine rules and other public health restrictions, describing the rules as “two-faced.”

“You got the small business — it’s trying to implement the rules. And then you see [Premier] Jason Kenney and all these other big shots sitting with no masks on, no restrictions, Learjetting all over the world, crossing borders,” said Friesen, whose wife owned a restaurant in Fort Vermilion until recently. 

The public health rules have meant Friesen has missed three funerals over the course of the pandemic due to capacity limits. 

Currently, the province has prohibited indoor weddings and funerals unless the venue has adopted Alberta’s restriction-exemption program, which requires proof of vaccine or a negative test. Even then, they are limited to 50 per cent capacity.

But the province has allowed events such as NHL games to go ahead at 100 per cent capacity, as long as the venue has the restriction-exemption program in place.

Friesen finds it frustrating he has to miss important events while tens of thousands of people are allowed to gather in stadiums.

“Everybody has a story of it, and everybody’s getting sick of it,” he said. 

Frank conversations a way to increase uptake

As the pandemic stretches on, though, the number of Mackenzie County residents willing to get vaccinated has slowly started to climb. Thirty-five per cent of all residents have at least one dose, up from 26 per cent in mid-November. 

Pharmacist Keyur Shah said he saw a bump in people seeking vaccination at his Fort Vermilion pharmacy when the $100 incentive was announced in September. And he said it’s been steady since the introduction of Alberta’s restriction-exemption program.

“What our government is doing seems like it’s working,” he said.

Keyur Shah, standing inside his pharmacy in High Level, Alta., says the number of vaccinations his clinic is doing are slowly starting to rise. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

When Shah talks to vaccine-hesitant patients, he said, they often have concerns about side-effects or questions around if it’ll work.

“I urge the patient, ‘Please get the vaccine, just to prevent any kind of hospitalization,'” he said. 

Conversations about vaccines with local health-care workers whom residents already know and trust is a cornerstone in AHS’s efforts to increase vaccine uptake in the area, said Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, the medical officer of health for the north zone.

“It really is a conversation,” Koliaska said. “As the conversation evolves with the pandemic — and, quite frankly, as the pandemic evolves, too — different questions come up. And so to the best of our knowledge, to the best of the scientific evidence available, we will listen to questions and then answer them and respond to them.”

AHS staff want to hear the specific worries people have about the vaccine — whether it’s a rumour they’ve heard or something they saw on social media, Koliaska said.

“If someone has that in the back of their mind, any of the other information we present, does it really help until we’ve answered the question that someone’s really worried about?” she said. 

Asked about the apparent widespread disregard for public health restrictions in La Crete, Koliaska acknowledged that legal options for enforcement exist. But it’s a “very, very challenging question,” she said.

AHS is better at education and service delivery, Koliaska said, and turns to enforcement only in a limited number of cases.

“Ultimately, what we care about in Alberta Health Services is about keeping people healthy and keeping people safe, keeping people out of hospital,” she said. “That’s what’s actually really important.”

When entering the Dene Tha’ First Nation in Bushe River, Alta., signs direct you to wash your hands to help control the spread of COVID-19. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

A diverse community

Alberta’s Ministry of Health declined to provide a breakdown of immunization rates for different municipalities and First Nations within Mackenzie County, but visits to different communities across the county suggest attitudes about COVID-19 vary.

While there is a large Mennonite population, particularly in and around La Crete, the area is diverse. A Métis settlement and several First Nations call the region home, and between agriculture, forestry and oil and gas, many others come to the area for work.

One large sign near the Dene Tha’ First Nation band office at Bushe River encourages handwashing. Another directs workers arriving from outside the First Nation to check in for COVID-19 screening. Handwritten signs at a nearby convenience store post updates on case counts in surrounding communities.

In the community of High Level, masking in businesses is de rigueur, and local restaurant staff check for proof of vaccination. 

The town is a hub for accommodations for workers, whose steady presence has helped restaurants and hotels in the northern town stay afloat, said Tareq Morad, president of his family’s hospitality company, which operates five hotels and attached restaurants in High Level.

A chef at the Best Western Mirage in High Level, Alta., prepares dinner for local customers. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

When Alberta lifted nearly all public health restrictions over the summer, Morad said there was a surge in business as locals made their way back to his dining rooms.

But then came the restriction-exemption program, which requires restaurants to check for proof of vaccine if they want to open for indoor dining.  

“Local traffic and demand really, really diminished due to low vaccination rates in our area,” Morad said.

Morad’s businesses enforce health restrictions, but he has empathy for people he’s spoken with who have various reasons for not wanting to be immunized. He feels for provincial decision-makers, too, he says.

“It’s a tough one,” Morad said. “There was no playbook for this, right?”

Wall and his family, meanwhile, are debating whether or not to stick to the rules and face another lonely winter without social gatherings.

“At some point we’re also humans, we have social needs,” he said.

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