A protest at the screening of a documentary about Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday is part of a concerning trend toward aggressive, anti-social behaviour, says Victoria’s police chief.
Forty to 50 protesters converged on the Vic Theatre at the world première of Our Time to Be Kind, an 83-minute documentary on the provincial health officer’s career and her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’d been getting some emails, trying to educate us,” festival director Kathy Kay said Friday. “And I guess about 2 or 3 p.m. Thursday, we got a call from somebody who said there were 30 people coming over from Vancouver. That’s when we thought something was going to happen.”
Kay, who had been in touch with the Victoria Police Department, got in touch with them again.
Chief Del Manak said police knew about the planned protest.
As soon as officers on the scene realized the crowd was bigger than anticipated, additional officers from the public safety unit were deployed.
“We were able to pivot on the fly,” said Manak. “Several of the protesters were getting hostile. They were agitated. And as the protest group got larger, it was spilling out from the sidewalk, so now we’ve got safety concerns for the protesters standing in the road.”
Kay, who was outside keeping an eye on the protest, said most were peaceful, but seven or eight were being loud, obnoxious and aggressive and trying to intimidate people entering the theatre.
Henry was in the sold-out crowd watching the film. “When they brought her up on stage, the standing ovation was amazing — loud and long,” said Kay.
While the film screening took place, a line of police officers guarded the Vic Theatre entrance. At the end of the film, volunteers and the audience were escorted from the theatre by police.
At one point, about 15 officers were deployed on the scene. Some protesters heckled the attendees as they left the building.
“For me, it’s funny… these people are all about freedom until you don’t agree with their ideas,” said Kay, who doesn’t expect any other protest to take place during the film festival.
“This is the first time in 30 years that this has happened. I’m hoping this will never happen again.”
Since the pandemic, there seems to be a high level of emotion, aggression and divisiveness on key issues in the community, said Manak. People are extremely passionate about their causes and are unwilling to accept others’ opinions or allow people to peacefully protest for their cause.
“It could be SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity], pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. We have seen an increase in the emotion involved. And that can lead to conflict and that’s where we have to be extremely careful when protests and counter protests are showing up in the same location.”
A police presence was required to maintain order Thursday night to prevent protesters entering the theatre or stopping the film, the chief said. There were no arrests.
The protest targeting Henry happened in the same week that former B.C. cabinet minister Selina Robinson received a death threat. Robinson, who is Jewish, resigned as post-secondary education minister on Monday amid an uproar over comments she made during an online panel discussion that modern Israel was founded on a “crappy piece of land.”
Coquitlam RCMP Staff Sgt. Chris Clark said the RCMP are investigating the threat but couldn’t provide specific or further details.
Manak said the death threat crossed the line and is unacceptable.
“You may not like a particular individual or politician but it’s going overboard and we’re not going to sit here and accept her or anyone else getting threats.”
People need to rethink the hurtful and sometimes criminal nature of their comments, said Manak, adding threats are taken extremely seriously by Victoria police and will be investigated and could result in arrests.
“We have to send a strong message that behaviour like this will not be tolerated.”
Threats on social media are usually made under the veil of anonymity, he noted. And threats against politicians are happening far too often.
“People need to take a breath. They need to cool down. They can still voice their opinion, express their displeasure, but it has to be done in a responsible manner,” said Manak.
“Political discourse and having different opinions and the right to protest is the fabric of this country. But we do really need to ensure that what we are listening to is safe, peaceful and lawful, and death threats do not fall under those categories.”
— With files from Michael J. Lo and The Canadian Press
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