AURORA, ONT. — Twice in as many days, the divergent opinions and heated anti-vaccination sentiments over COVID-19 shots were front and centre as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made campaign stops in Conservative-held ridings his party wants back.
As he was leaving an outdoor patio meet-and-greet on Tuesday, he was faced with a small number of vocal and angry anti-mask and anti-vaccination protesters. The situation got tense and aggressive as Trudeau was moved onto his bus.
Faced with the chants about “forced vaccination” Trudeau responded with “please get vaccinated.”
A similar situation unfolded one night prior in Cobourg, Ont.
As Trudeau arrived outside a local restaurant, a mixed crowd had gathered. Some were thankful for the government’s vaccine procurement efforts, though a smaller contingent of others were booing, yelling about the perceived infringement on their freedoms, and heckling him with remarks that stem from debunked conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines.
“You may have noticed tonight there are people with different perspectives on how we need to move forward as a country… Now, those of you who don’t think we should be encouraging people to get vaccinated, who don’t think we should be stepping up to help each other, you have your opportunity to make your voices heard. But you know what, so do all of us other Canadians who know the way to get through this is to get vaccinated,” Trudeau said.
In the three days that the 2021 federal election has been underway, the topic of vaccinations—specifically mandatory vaccinations for passengers on planes, trains, and cruise ships as well as for federal public servants—has been something the three main national party leaders have been talking about.
With the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats all requiring those travelling with them on their campaign tours to be fully vaccinated, they’ve spent time each day trying to articulate how their approach for the thousands of federal employees would differ. But in doing so, concerns have been expressed that instead of helping to incentivize the approximately 17 per cent of the eligible population still yet to roll up their sleeves, the campaign rhetoric could further be putting them off.
Angela Carter, executive director of the non-profit Roots Community Services, which is providing vaccine information and hosting clinics for those in the Peel Region is one of those cautioning the impact of the political rhetoric.
“We know that vaccination is the major way of protecting people at this stage and I think it should not be made to be a political football,” she told CTV News on Tuesday.
“I would hope that our political leaders would be mindful of the damage it can cause if they use it just to gain votes during this election.
Asked whether they too are concerned about the ongoing electioneering off of the issue, Trudeau, O’Toole and Singh all indicated that they were to some degree. But that didn’t stop them from wading into the debate as an opportunity to contrast themselves to their opponents.
First, CTVNews.ca asked Trudeau whether he thought it was responsible for the vaccination conversation to be turned into a wedge issue.
In response, Trudeau said that Canadians expect their political parties and governments to be doing what they can to keep them safe, and so that’s why he’s talking about vaccinations on the campaign trail.
But his message was more than an encouragement to get vaccinated.
“All political leaders should be exactly as unequivocal about it. Instead, you get the Conservatives refusing to say whether or not all their candidates even are vaccinated. That’s ridiculous,” Trudeau said. “We see the Conservatives saying that they will roll back our decision to make sure that all public servants get vaccinated… That’s our position and the other parties really should take that position as well.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s position isn’t to roll back mandatory vaccinations, though. Rather, his party’s suggestion includes offering rapid testing as an alternative.
Getting into the mix himself, O’Toole on Tuesday shot back at Trudeau saying he was “misleading people and dividing people on health issues.”
Asked if he was concerned that people’s confidence in the merits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 could be eroded by the ongoing political discourse, O’Toole first dodged the question from CTV News, pivoting to the concerns over a yanked federal memo related to the vaccine mandate plan.
Asked again by another outlet, O’Toole offered: “I’m very disappointed for him to suggest that we don’t support people getting vaccinated and coming up with other ways to make sure that people that aren’t, can be protected… Let’s take the politics out of it. But we’re in a fourth wave pandemic, courtesy of Justin Trudeau, not anyone else, and for him to use this approach… it’s very disappointing, and Canadians deserve better.”
CTV News also asked NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh whether he’s concerned that the debate over the mandatory vaccination policy will only further inflame the divisive and sensitive issue. He said yes, although his team has also waded into the contrasting game on this topic, sending reporters statements framing Trudeau’s plan as coming up short.
“I hope we can really come together around the fact that there are public health experts that provide science-based, evidence-based reasons for us to do certain things that will keep us safe. And I want us to really believe in that instead of getting caught up in what is popular, what opinion is going to get people more votes,” Singh said.
Intensive and palliative care physician Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, who’s spent the last year and a half on the front lines of the pandemic witnessing the devastating impact of COVID-19 on human lives, said politicians need to rise above the gamesmanship and think about what matters most.
“I just believe that this isn’t something that needs to be weaponized, or politicized. This is people’s lives, this is people’s rights. Do what you think is needed but don’t be manipulative here, focus on what is going to save lives,” he told CTV News on Tuesday.
If you enjoyed this piece, you should sign up for our subscriber-only Election Dispatch newsletter for a brief but comprehensive daily update from the campaign trail.
With files from CTV News’ Sarah Turnbull