Federal election candidates in northeast B.C. agreed Wednesday night that staging COVID-19 protests in front of hospitals is wrong and counterproductive.
Hospitals across Canada have become a backdrop during this election for thousands who are opposed to recent public health orders, particularly vaccine mandates and proof-of-vaccination policies, among other measures governments say are meant to stop the spread of the virus.
During an All Candidates Forum in Fort St. John on Wednesday, candidates for Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies agreed that protests are a fundamental right and part of Canadian society, but that there were better locations for protesters to choose.
"Protests are an extremely important part [of society] in order to get our point across but stopping people from getting health services is absolutely wrong. It’s the same thing that happens when somebody stops somebody from trying to get to work," said Maverick Party candidate Dave Jeffers.
“Protest at your government offices, in safe spots, parks, wherever, but don’t hinder anybody’s ability to obtain healthcare, or feed their family, or obstruct them from getting to their office or their job," Jeffers said. "Protests are important but do it appropriately.”
People’s Party candidate Ryan Dyck said he agreed that “protesting at a hospital is not productive” but that the protests have been necessary for people to be heard.
“There was a lot of news media that was saying it was violent and rude. The ones that I have been at I would have challenged that if I had seen that,” said Dyck. “The first protest that I attended was specifically a number of nurses requested people to come support them. I went and supported them and they felt genuinely cared for.”
NDP candidate Cory Grizz Longley criticized Dyck for attending local protests.
“Shame, sir. That is not cool,” Longley said. "And the people that decided to get in front of those ambulances — shame. That's all it is. Smarten up."
Longley said intensive care units in B.C. are now caring for newborns who are fighting the virus.
“This is what happens when we deny what is actually going on,” Longley said. “I’m not even saying denying the science. All you have to do is phone the hospital and ask them how many ICU beds they have. It’s not rocket science.”
Conservative candidate Bob Zimmer said Canadians have a constitutional right to peaceful protest but that health care workers have become pawns in the process.
“What’s sad about the situation is that the health care workers are a pawn in the middle of this discussion about a policy decision that was made,” Zimmer said. “I respect our frontline workers immensely and they should be the last ones we’re criticizing in this case. I admire their work, whether it’s a nurse, doctor, or a lab tech. I appreciate all of what they’ve done in these last 18 months. It’s been lot of work.”
Green Party candidate Catherine Kendall said citizens should be allowed to protest but not at risk to others. She said focus needs be put on educating Canadians on preventing the spread of transmissible diseases.
"Canadians need to be literate in transmissible disease prevention, and at this time they are not. They’re becoming polarized on the topic: vaxxers versus anti-vaxxers, moving the issue into a human rights debate,” Kendall said.
Candidates diverged in their opinions on how Canada needs to manage the national response to the pandemic after the Sept. 20 election. Kendall said vaccine passports are necessary but that flexibility is needed.
"Creating mandatory legislation for vaccinations does not work as well as it states it will,” Kendall said. “Individuals with medical conditions, religious and cultural convictions, and those that live rurally and remotely will require flexibility.”
The Liberals have announced vaccine mandates for workers in the federal public service, as well as for passengers travelling by plane, train, or cruise ship. Candidate Amir Alavi said this was necessary and that vaccination campaigns must continue to be pushed.
"The point is for travelling, getting on a train, getting on an airplane, going to a restaurant... We want to make sure that you are not transmitting the virus with yourself,” Alavi said, later adding that was also an important consideration for front line workers.
“The last thing we want them to be worried about is that their crew is not vaccinated with themselves and that way at least they know they can actually focus on their job, focus on getting things done for the community," Alavi said.
On hospital protests, Alavi said, “I don’t think that would be the best decision making and the best way to publicize your message. It’s just counter effective.”
Zimmer said Conservatives support personal choice over mandatory vaccinations, and that Canada will need an “internationally recognized” proof-of-vaccination document for citizens who want to travel abroad.
"Only the federal government can provide that document,” Zimmer said. “It is up to individual foreign governments to establish vaccination rules for travellers, and countries around the world are now requiring proof of vaccination to enter their country.”
Dyck said the government has misled Canadians on a number of issues about COVID-19, and said that statistics show it is not dangerous to youth. He said many are concerned the government will soon allow young children make their own choices on getting vaccinated.
“It’s going to keep going, and unless we put an end to this, it’s going to be worse yet,” Dyck said. "It’s not stopping here unless we put an end to it."
Longley said the NDP is “firmly in approval” of vaccinations and passports, but that choosing to get vaccinated was still a voluntary choice for Canadians.
“I actually had an opportunity last night to go out and have dinner with friends and it was so refreshing to walk into a place where I knew that everybody was already vaccinated,” Longley said. “Everybody that was sitting in that place had shown their vaccine passport, which is a very simple thing to do, and we had a fantastic time.”
“No one had to lose anything, no one lost their rights,” he said. "None of this is mandated, it’s voluntary: you opt in or you choose to opt out.”