British Columbia

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will speak at Surrey event despite outcry, board of trade says

Dozens of people, some among them doctors, are chastising the Surrey Board of Trade for its "reckless" choice of speaker for an event this fall: Robert Kennedy Jr., son of the late U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, and a high-profile anti-vaccine activist.

Doctors, public criticize invitation because of Kennedy's anti-vaccine views

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., speaks against legislation to narrow the exemptions to state-mandated vaccines during a rally at the state Capitol in Albany, New York, last month. (Hans Pennink/The Associated Press)

Dozens of people, including some doctors, are chastising the Surrey Board of Trade for its "reckless" choice of speaker for an event this fall: Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist and member of America's high-profile Kennedy family.

The board thought Kennedy would be a "valuable" speaker at its Surrey Environment & Business Awards on Sept. 17, a spokesperson said, announcing his appearance by calling him a "visionary" environmental activist and business leader on Twitter early Sunday.

But an onslaught of replies to the tweet have called the board's decision "tone deaf" and verging on "reckless endangerment," on account of Kennedy's views on vaccines.

"Do better," tweeted one physician, Tyler Black. Another family doctor, Renee Fernandez, implored the board to "reconsider." 

Kennedy sits on the board of Children's Health Defence, an anti-vaccination group which links childhood conditions like autism and asthma to a variety of external factors including vaccines. The organization's website said media coverage of a recent measles outbreak in the U.S. has been "clearly top-down orchestrated and global" by the World Health Organization.

Kennedy has also appeared at rallies outside public hearings, opposing legislation that would remove parents' ability to claim a personal or philosophical exemption to vaccinating their school-age children for measles as the Pacific Northwest struggles with an outbreak of the contagious virus.

In May, Kennedy's brother and sister published a column saying their brother has "helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines."

Robert Kennedy Jr., left, stands with participants at a rally held in opposition to a proposed bill that would remove parents' ability to claim a philosophical exemption to the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in Olympia, Wash., in February. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey board, acknowledged public opposition to having Kennedy as a speaker, but said the board won't be cancelling the booking.

"He is going to bring a perspective that will make people think. He will not be speaking on his vaccination position. We've made that clear,"  Huberman said in a telephone interview Monday.

"We are going to have a healthy dialogue, just focused on the environment as well as the clean-tech sector."

Huberman said she didn't anticipate the public condemnation.

"To some extent it did surprise me. Certainly, we were aware of Mr. Kennedy's position on this matter, but because of his work, because of his profile, we felt it would be valuable for him to speak," she said.

"We're certainly aware of the consequences of our decision ... but ... we look forward to bringing Mr. Kennedy to Surrey."

With files from the CBC's Yvette Brend and the Associated Press