Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen wouldn’t condemn an anti-mask group from his constituency Friday, after taking heat for saying their members were “making some good points.”
It is his job as Morden-Winkler MLA to meet with people he represents, including those he differs with, he said in question period at the Manitoba Legislature on Friday.
“I will not condemn my constituents, but I will always say we can always learn from people we disagree with,” Friesen said.
The health minister was repeatedly asked by the Opposition NDP Friday to disavow the group, which held a rally Tuesday to protest mandatory mask use in schools for students in Grade 4 and up.
Hundreds of people attended the protest outside the Garden Valley School Division office in Winkler.
The group met with school division leadership, Friesen told reporters Thursday, and he also met separately with them.
“They’re making some good points,” he said.
Mask rules depend on distance between students
As an example, he noted that parents questioned why students had to wear masks when they’re seated, facing forward and 1.7 metres apart, but not when they’re separated by two metres.
Public health advice in Manitoba and beyond has recommended at least two metres of distance between non-mask-wearing people to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
“I think they’re asking good questions,” Friesen said of the parents. “But also from my conversations with some of those group leaders, I also thought that they were seeking to comply and seeking to be reasonable.”
He added he was “happy to see … that the rally was happening outdoors,” and that Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin “has continued to say that the degree of spread is less likely outdoors.”
Friesen also noted his constituency isn’t subject to the mask requirement in all indoor places that is currently in effect in the Winnipeg region, where the number of positive cases is significantly higher.
The health minister said he doesn’t think there’s a surge in anti-mask sentiment in his constituency.
While insisting that mask use is an important precaution, on Friday, Friesen once again said that the parents group had “made some good points.”
In question period, he referenced the group’s worries about cancelling school sports and the need for a doctor’s note to exempt a child from mandatory masks.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew later slammed Friesen’s comments.
“I think any reasonable political advisor would have told the minister of health that his job today would be to not repeat those terrible comments that he made that support the anti-mask movement,” Kinew said.
“The minister of health is doubling down on these irresponsible comments.”
Kinew said there’s no room for equivocation on the subject of face coverings, which he called a matter of life and death.
“The public health orders are clear: we need to be wearing masks, it is going to help stop the spread,” he said.
“How is it that we have a minister of health in Manitoba who cannot unequivocally condemn the anti-mask movement?”
Friesen accused Kinew of trying to divide Manitobans, before urging the use of face coverings.
“If that member only meets with people in his constituency that he agrees with, I assure you he is the only member of the legislature,” Friesen said.
“We’ve been clear: washing hands saves lives, infection prevention control saves lives, physical distancing saves lives and masks save lives.”
The health minister said he didn’t see his refusal to condemn the group as flirting with an anti-science crowd that’s undermining public health advice, as Kinew put it.
“We meet with broad array of groups, some who challenge us on issues, on policies. This is the life of … a constituency office. It’s what we signed up to do.
“And instead of hate, we prefer hope. Instead of disengagement, we choose engagement.”
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused Friesen of “repeating and amplifying” the opinions of anti-maskers.
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