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Political tensions a concern in the lead-up to Ontario vaccine mandate

Belleville city council members discuss the political climate before the vaccine passport mandate goes into effect on September 22. Photo from QNet News.

By Jacob Willis [1]

BELLEVILLE ‒ Wednesday September 22 looms as a critical day in the fight against COVID-19 in Ontario.

That date is when Ontario officially puts into effect a vaccine passport mandate [2]. Restaurants, bars and clubs must deny entry to anyone who cannot provide proof of two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

In regard to public health, the evidence is clear. Vaccine requirements help to ensure a safe return to public spaces in the later stages of the pandemic. 

But in terms of the local political climate, the requirement serves to further alienate a vocal minority of citizens who feel it should be within their rights to refuse the vaccine.

The rhetoric among many anti-vaccine protestors is strong. There is a sentiment in Canada that these public health measures are serious human rights violations worthy of protest. Anti-vax gatherings have already sprung up across the province in anticipation of this mandate. 

In Toronto, people congregated outside the Toronto General Hospital to call for an end to what they called “tyrannical measures and government overreach”. Similar protests happened outside other hospitals across Canada.Some protestors in Calgary drew disgust for likening vaccine passports to the Holocaust, donning yellow stars and holding pictures of Anne Frank. 

Belleville has not been immune to these tensions. Back in April, MPP Randy Hillier was one of two charged after over 100 people attended an anti-lockdown rally at Zwicks Park.

As we’ve seen in Quebec, which imposed vaccine passport mandates on September 1, the enforcement of these policies can add fuel to the fire. Protesters have taken to the streets in Montreal and Laval in the weeks following the order.

Tyler Allsopp, a Belleville councillor, says he recognizes the risk of political turmoil locally and has prioritized the proper handling of this major transition in Ontario’s fight against the coronavirus.

“It could be reasonably suggested that in some cases, things won’t go well (in the public’s reaction to vaccine mandate enforcement),” Allsopp said. “Our response to some of the negative impacts of the mandate will be very important.”

The debate over vaccines appears to be a microcosm of a larger problem of division within Canadian communities. 

“It’s concerning…the coarsening of Canadian politics has been happening for a while now,” Allsopp said. “The vaccine debate has been particularly heated. It’s something that we’re going to have to grapple with moving forward.”

Belleville councillor Carol Feeney echoes Allsopp’s concerns.

“It’s a very difficult situation right now,” Feeney said. “Nobody asked for this, but we need to comply to keep everyone safe. People are still being resistant. We need to educate and reach out to these people, to help them better understand the gravity of the situation to keep things from getting out of hand.”

Belleville mayor Mitch Panciuk offered a measure of optimism in response. 

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen, but based on past practices our region has seen great success in our public health measures,” Panciuk said. “I think that, by and large, people are supportive of this.”

Panciuk looks elsewhere in Canada to show the pitfalls of COVID denial, as Alberta’s return to COVID lockdown protocols is a reminder of the pandemic’s harsh realities.

“Recent news in the province of Alberta tells us what happens when people disregard this as a medical problem,” he said. “They pushed for a return to normal on July 1, and now they have to put in even stronger restrictions. That goes a long way towards disproving the people who think we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Should tensions begin to escalate, Panciuk is confident in the ability of the Belleville police to diffuse the situation.

“The Belleville police service has standard operating procedures in place to evaluate these types of risks. They will make sure that residents and visitors are safe and secure. I have no concerns about what may come on Wednesday.”

Allsopp says his worries extend further than just the next few weeks. Allsopp voiced his anxieties about the future of Canadian political discourse:

“Once this is resolved, however long that will take, will we be able to bring people back together? Will this tension go away? If it doesn’t, what does that mean for the political landscape and how are we going to proceed from there? Those are all valid questions, and I think that we don’t necessarily have the answers to them right now.”