A Stayner man charged at this past weekend's 'freedom rally' in downtown Barrie disputes the reason for his arrest and now finds himself at odds with the organizer of the controversial gatherings.
For almost two months, crowds have been congregating in downtown Barrie to protest the ongoing public health measures, provincial lockdown and stay-at-home orders.
More recently, they’ve been showing up donning sweaters and T-shirts with messaging such as 'United Non Compliance', 'Free the North' and 'No More Lockdowns'. Some of the shirts were being sold during this past Saturday’s protest, which was moved from Meridian Place to Centennial Park after the city erected fencing around the Dunlop Street square.
Robert MacFarlane, who was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance and resisting arrest after confronting organizers at Saturday's event at Centennial Park, claims he did not make statements urging the crowd to return to Meridian Place to remove the barricades placed around the square.
“That’s not the reason I confronted him. The main reason I confronted (protest organizer Tyler Nicholson) was he had no action toward addressing the issue," the 36-year-old Stayner man told BarrieToday. "Walking away from the protest that’s been closed to set up a protest in another location accomplishes nothing.
"The government is just going to play protest whack-a-mole at that point," MacFarlane added.
In an audio recording provided to BarrieToday, MacFarlane can be heard yelling at the crowd, telling them the city’s move to place fencing at Meridian Place is taking away the public’s rights to assembly. He called the organizers "cowards."
“We have a right to protest and they’re stopping us from doing it. Turn around and fight the real battle. The battle isn’t here,” MacFarlane yells in the recording before someone conducts a microphone check to drown him out.
MacFarlane can also be overheard screaming at Nicholson about money: “Are you taking money from these people and putting it into a non-profit or are you putting it in your own pocket?”
It’s at that point members of the crowd start yelling at MacFarlane to leave.
Barrie police officers stepped in at that time and ultimately removed him from the crowd. A female officer can be heard informing MacFarlane that he is being arrested and telling him he needs to calm down.
In an interview with BarrieToday, MacFarlane said he's new to the local protests.
“I have only been going there for a couple of weeks, but when speaking with everyone that’s there, they all espouse the same issue, which is that it seems there are way too many discussions about donations, of merchandise and of money going into the pockets," MacFarlane said.
"Any time I’ve even brought it up to any of their organizers, it is the most uncomfortable feeling in the room,” he added. “As soon as I started talking about money, he turned and he attacked.
"I don’t know what is going on," MacFarlane said. "There are signs that say $35 donation for sweaters. Is that going into a non-profit or a charity, or is that going into his pocket to be split up by him and his people? I don’t know and I’ve asked.”
When reached by BarrieToday, Nicholson said the incident at Centennial Park wasn't the first time that day he'd had issues with MacFarlane, adding he'd received a call from a police contact that "the same guy who caused commotion the week prior was on site screaming and kicking the fence and causing a commotion."
Nicholson said he told the officer he doesn't condone that type of behaviour and that MacFarlane was not with the group.
"My intention was never to tear down the fence," Nicholson said. "I am glad to mobilize and relocate. We had no intention on staying or occupying Meridian or causing a nuisance."
After the protesters began walking to the park, Nicholson said he noticed MacFarlane trailing behind and told nearby members of Barrie police they didn’t want him to be at the park.
"He’d already caused a commotion," Nicholson said. "I was informed they had an undercover officer tailing him. ... Not only was he able to make it to the park... but he was able to infiltrate the crowd and make it right up to my face."
Nicholson says he did not hear MacFarlane shouting questions about where the money goes from the sale of clothing at this weekend's rally, but told BarrieToday funds raised are used to create more shirts and pay for food for the barbecue.
"It all came to life because people started giving money. … I don’t feel right taking money from people, because that’s not what my intentions were with this. If people were compelled to donate, I wanted to give something back in return," he said.
Nicholson says money from sales, along with additional donations, will also be used to cover the cost of children's entertainment at the next rally.
In a video posted Sunday, Nicholson describes MacFarlane's arrest as being “staged.”
“It was laughable to me because it wasn’t real. This guy was planted in the protest a few weeks ago and since Day 1 he’s tried to cause an issue. He was put there to antagonize me,” Nicholson says at the beginning of the nearly 60-minute Facebook video.
Sales on city property are prohibited unless an individual or organization has obtained a permit for an event or tender from the city, explained city spokesperson Scott Lamantia.
“No permit or tender was issued for the gathering that took place this past weekend," Lamantia told BarrieToday.
Organizers have announced plans to host next weekend's event to the Sadlon Arena parking lot, which is owned by the city.
“The gatherings that have occurred are contrary to the provincial stay-at-home order, provincial legislation and regulations, the city’s COVID-19 emergency measures bylaw and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s public health guidelines," Lamantia said "We are asking residents to not gather in groups anywhere and only go out for essential purposes."
Gatherings of this type, which have been happening since March 13, continue to be a police matter, he added.
“At the same time, the city is exploring all available actions to stop these gatherings, including possible court action for an injunction to restrain the organizers," Lamantia said.