A crowd rallying against vaccination for Covid-19 clogged the streets outside a Vancouver hospital this week, haranguing and, in one case, assaulting health care workers, slowing ambulances, delaying patients entering for treatment and disturbing those recovering inside.
Kennedy Stewart, the city’s mayor, was among the many people to quickly condemn its members.
“When I see folks blocking health care workers who are working flat out to save people dying of Covid, it makes me sick,” he wrote on Twitter.
While polls show that Canadians opposed to vaccines are a decided minority, the Vancouver protest was not an isolated event. In British Columbia, protesters were out in Kamloops, Victoria, Kelowna, Prince George and Nanaimo. A hospital area in downtown Toronto saw a similar rage-filled protest, and an anti-vaccine group made its way through downtown Montreal.
All this, of course, followed the angry and often profane protests that have tracked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the federal election campaign, forcing the cancellation of one event out of safety concerns. It’s not just been Mr. Trudeau or Liberals who have been targeted. Anti-vaccine protesters twice showed up at the home of Stephen Lecce, the education minister in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government. When protesters learned Mr. Lecce wasn’t home, they heckled his neighbors.
Coincidentally or not, public anti-vaccine rage emerged in a week that brought developments in some provinces requiring proof of vaccination for entrance to some public places. The vaccine-verification system in Quebec, which includes a phone app, came into effect on Wednesday. And in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford backed away from his long-held resistance to vaccine passports and announced a program that will be fully phased in by late October.
Mr. Ford’s announcement means that Ontario now joins British Columbia and Manitoba in addition to Quebec in requiring proof of vaccination for some activities. (Saskatchewan is working on the development of a vaccination passport, but it has not made vaccinations mandatory for any activity or job.)
There are significant differences between the provinces. For example, Quebec’s list of places that require vaccination is longer and more stringent than Ontario’s will be when it starts later this month. Dining at a restaurant in Quebec will require vaccination whether indoors or on an outdoor terrace. Ontario’s measure will apply indoors only, raising questions about how patio diners will use washrooms or, at many locations, even enter the outdoor dining spaces.
The reaction from businesses is mixed. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce last month called for clear mandatory vaccination rules from governments and vaccine passports. But some individual business owners, particularly those with restaurants, have raised concerns about vetting their customers and enforcing the rules.
No province has a blanket mandatory vaccination policy. But vaccine passports and vaccination mandates by employers or governments have raised some privacy and human rights concerns.
I asked Errol Mendes, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, a human rights specialist, if mandatory vaccinations are likely to be overturned by any court.
He said that someone fired for refusing vaccination under a vaccine mandate set by an employer could bring a case under provincial human rights codes. Similarly, labor unions could argue that firings break their collective agreements. In the case of government-imposed vaccines, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would come into play.
“But it’s not a certainty that any of these legal challenges would necessarily be successful,” Professor Mendes said.
It’s much more likely, he said, that any such case would follow the pattern set by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland when a provincial travel ban was challenged. It found that the ban did indeed violate part of the charter but was nevertheless legal because it was a reasonable restriction in the context of the pandemic.
Before calling the election, Mr. Trudeau said the government would require vaccines for its public servants, employees in federally regulated industries and passengers on trains, planes and cruise ships. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, made a similar proposal and even set Monday as a deadline. Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader, does not support mandatory vaccinations.
As was the case in British Columbia and Quebec, Ontario’s announcement about vaccination proof was immediately followed by an increase in vaccination bookings.
As for the anti-vaccine protesters, there’s no immediate sign that they will follow the advice of Vancouver’s mayor and stay home. But they are probably not who they claim to be. The Ontario Hospital Association said that, contrary to the protesters’ claims in Toronto, it believes “that the majority of participants taking part in these rallies were not health care workers.”
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
It also made it clear that their protests are unwelcome.
“By denying the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines they also inflicted moral injury on health care workers who are working tirelessly on the front lines caring for patients sick and dying from this dangerous virus,” the group said. “It is a bitter irony that should any of these anti-vaccine protesters get sick or seriously ill from Covid, it will be hospitals and front line workers that they turn to for care.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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