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Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency room physician, leads a protest against the Alberta government ending COVID-19 testing, tracing, and isolation regulations as his bodyguard looks on in Calgary, Alta.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Joe Vipond left the McDougall Centre in downtown Calgary around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, after leading a rally against Alberta’s plans to wind down COVID-19 testing centres, contact tracing, and isolation requirements. He walked east, away from the lingering crowd, to set up in a quiet spot for a TV interview. The police followed.

Dr. Vipond, an emergency room doctor, has emerged as one of Premier Jason Kenney’s most prominent critics. At the end of July, the physician became the de facto leader of daily rallies against the United Conservative Party’s handling of the pandemic. In Calgary, demonstrators have gathered outside McDougall, a provincial government building; in Edmonton, they have typically rallied at the legislature.

UCP operatives portray Dr. Vipond as a shill for the NDP. Anti-maskers and vaccine conspiracy theorists call him a snake oil salesman, a fascist and a fraud. Counterdemonstrators show up each day, trying to drown out Dr. Vipond and his supporters. When they get too close, a beefy buddy of his casually steps between them and the physician.

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Sustained demonstrations are not part of Alberta’s political culture. The daily rallies mark a new level of frustration with Mr. Kenney’s government, with newcomers to political activism chanting alongside union stalwarts. And the increasing distaste for Alberta’s UCP could ripple beyond provincial politics, if disaffected voters take out their grievances on Conservative Party of Canada candidates in the federal election next month.

As Dr. Vipond left McDougall with his unofficial bodyguard and the TV reporter, a Calgary Police Services officer jumped on a bike to keep eyes on him. The officer followed, from a distance, as the three set up for the interview.

Anti-vaccine demonstrators heckle Dr. Joe Vipond as he speaks.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

When a counterdemonstrator walked by, the officer talked into his radio and another CPS member arrived. The pair moved closer to Dr. Vipond, to a spot where they could quickly get between the physician and his critic, who was speaking into a megaphone a few feet away. They let the counterdemonstrator do his thing.

On Friday, Dr. Vipond and those like him declared partial victory. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, delayed the closing of testing centres, and said those who test positive for COVID-19 must continue to isolate. Contact tracing, however, will still be wound down.

Dr. Hinshaw said this latest decision was based on an examination of data out of the United States, where states with low vaccination rates have seen increasing hospital admissions of children. Asked whether Friday’s reversal was an acknowledgment that people like Dr. Vipond are correct, Dr. Hinshaw addressed the political tension in the province.

“One of the most concerning things that’s happened during the pandemic is the polarization and the difficulty in having respectful dialogue across differences of opinion,” she told reporters. “And I believe that, with very complex and even wicked problems like COVID-19, we are not well served by engaging in holding on to positions rather than identifying that we have common interest.”

She said she is not infallible. But neither, Dr. Hinshaw noted, are those who have different ideas on what the province should do.

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“It is critical that we open space for respectful dialogue, and to share perspectives, to be able to have that discussion,” she said.

With the government backing down, rally organizers have called off plans to demonstrate this weekend. The political fallout, however, will continue. Mr. Kenney was a top lieutenant under former prime minister Stephen Harper, and voters closely associate him with the federal Conservative Party.

Morgan Turigan was one of the regulars at the McDougall rallies, and she said she is new to this type of activism. She comes from a family of dedicated conservatives and has belonged to the Conservative Party of Canada. That membership fee, she said, was the only political donation she had ever made.

Ms. Turigan said she votes based on policy rather than ideological fidelity, but that her anger at the UCP will dictate how she votes in the federal election.

“I would not vote for the Cons in this election because of what Alberta’s doing,” she said.

Prior to Alberta reversing course, she contacted federal Conservative MPs to inform them that she will not vote Conservative unless they try to persuade their provincial counterparts to rethink their COVID-19 strategy.

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“This is affecting my vote, because I can’t believe that they are not standing up to say: ‘Hey provincial friends, stop doing this,’” she said.

It will take years for conservative parties to win her back, and others in her social circle feel the same way, she said.

Demonstrators show support for vaccination efforts and Dr. Joe Vipond.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Mark Lehman is another newcomer to the activist scene. He is a retired businessman. Demonstrating, he said, makes him uncomfortable. But he joined the McDougall rallies because he felt the UCP was putting lives at risk.

“I just felt like it is time for people like me – who are maybe not atypical – to be there. To lend support,” Mr. Lehman said. He is a long-time conservative, and he supported the UCP in the previous election. But, he said: “Never again.”

Dan Furst, a corporate lawyer in Calgary, joined the McDougall rallies when he could fit them into his schedule. He said he had dabbled in political activism before, but that he is more comfortable writing letters.

“I don’t like having to do it,” he said of attending the rallies. “It always feels like the spectre of violence is never far away.”

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