Nearly 800 pairs of empty shoes and work boots met Calgarians crossing the Peace Bridge on Wednesday. Beneath each pair was a piece of paper telling passersby about the professionals who had once worn them and how long they had held those jobs.

“Primary Care Paramedic, 20 yrs,” one sign read. “Canadian Armed Forces, 17 yrs.”

“RN 24 years – Covenant Health,” read another. “We will not be silenced.”

Their owners – workers in health care and emergency services – have all been forced from their jobs by Alberta Health Services’ (AHS) mandatory COVID vaccination policy. They include physicians, nurses, midwives, firefighters and many more.

A sign standing over the display read, “11,682 years of service represented here.”

Organizer Kate King was a primary care paramedic for ten years before being forced from her job after refusing to comply with the COVID vaccine mandate. She started the Alberta Boot Project just over a week ago to raise awareness of the human toll of the job losses – a toll often overlooked amidst the numbers and the divisions caused by the vaccination issue. 

“We want people to be aware of the human cost these vaccine mandates have taken,” King told True North. 

When asked which display struck her the hardest, King gave the example of a midwife of 29 years whom she recognized as having delivered her own little sister. 

“We had her sign and her shoes displayed at the legislature two days ago, and so many people recognized her that they started bringing roses and putting them down on her sign, and by the end of the day there was a mound of roses.”

King describes the reactions of passersby as “a mixture of shock, tears and aggression.”

Some workers who have come by to see their own shoes on display broke down in tears. Others were blown away by the extent of the display.

However, not all passersby had a positive reaction to the display. “I’ve had other people cussing at us, and calling us a blight on humanity – which can be a great way to open a conversation,” King says.

“I’m a chronic optimist, so I’m pretty hopeful,” she adds. “I think what it’s going to take to see a change in our province is for the tide of public opinion to start to change.”

King estimates that somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 workers have been affected by the AHS mandate. She says that the number of 1650 given by AHS drastically misrepresents the true toll.

“The number the AHS released is very craftily worded,” she told True North. “It’s actually the number of people who were offered testing as an alternative and declined it. It’s not the number that was put on LOA (leave of absence).”

To create a legitimate database, King has launched a website that invites health professionals who have been affected by the mandate to check in with their stories. The survey can be completed anonymously.

AHS has also come under fire for allowing rapid testing in facilities with “low uptake” but denying the option to workers in other facilities.

The Alberta Boot Project’s volunteers set up their first display on Monday in front of the Edmonton legislature. They will move to Red Deer on Thursday before going province-wide in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that “Canadians have shown we’re there for our neighbours, we’re there for our most vulnerable, and we’re there for our frontline health workers.” However, he neglected to mention the thousands of health care workers that have been sacked due to COVID vaccine mandates.