Police investigating after Niagara's top doctor allegedly threatened over COVID-19 restrictions

Niagara Regional Police in Ontario say they are investigating after the region's acting medical officer of health was allegedly threatened over COVID-19 restrictions.

Alleged threats against Dr. Mustafa Hirji were posted on social media, police say

Niagara police investigating threats against regional chief medical officer

12 months ago
Duration 1:56
Police in Ontario's Niagara region are investigating online postings perceived as threats to Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the region's chief medical officer, that came after he announced an extended lockdown. Hirji is the latest Canadian medical official who has received threats during the pandemic. 1:56

Niagara Regional Police in Ontario say they are investigating after the region's top doctor was allegedly threatened over COVID-19 restrictions.

Police said on Saturday they are investigating the alleged threats against Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the region's acting medical officer of health, that were posted on social media.

Meanwhile, Hirji has welcomed the outpouring of support he's received. Several people, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, have condemned the alleged threats and voiced their support for Hirji.

"I'm deeply humbled by the volume & breadth of support," Hirji wrote on Twitter.

"More importantly, I'm gratified that so many are speaking up against violent language — such discourse corrodes our unity," he wrote.

"The excessive anger of a few today should not distract from the suffering of many during this pandemic — of social isolation, of loss of income, of losing a business built through a life's work."

The alleged threats were posted on Facebook on Friday — the same day the Ontario government announced that the stay-at-home order will be lifted in 27 more public health units this coming week, moving the regions back to the colour-coded framework for COVID-19 restrictions.

"We are aware of the social media posts in reference to Dr. Hirji that have been reported in the media," the Niagara Regional Police Service said on Twitter.

"We have commenced an investigation. We will not be commenting any further at this time regarding that investigation."

Niagara was the only region to be placed in the grey lockdown category, where retail businesses are allowed to reopen with strict capacity limits, but most other things are required to stay closed.

In a statement sent to CBC News on Sunday, a spokesperson for Niagara Region Public Health said Hirji understands that there are strong feelings around the provincial government's decision to open up Niagara to only the grey lockdown level.

"Many people and business owners are struggling significantly through the pandemic and the social restrictions that have been necessary at times, and this weighs heavily on Dr. Hirji when advising the province on Niagara's situation," Courtney Westerhof said in an email.

"However, Dr. Hirji also agrees with the consensus of public health experts that reopening the economy too quickly right now risks a devastating third wave and third lockdown which could do even more harm to Niagara's residents and business-owners," Westerhof said.

"His advice to the province in reviewing Niagara's situation is based on saving lives of Niagara residents, preventing any more lockdowns and enabling businesses to return to operation with enough predictability and runway that they will be able to effectively recover."

On Sunday, Peel Region's medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, said some people seem to forget that health professionals are also affected by the decisions they make.

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for Ontario's Niagara Region, says: 'The excessive anger of a few today should not distract from the suffering of many during this pandemic.' (Niagara Region/Twitter)

He said while he recognizes that "everyone is tired of COVID and that there's a lot of fatigue and tremendous frustration," threatening people is never the right thing to do.

"At the point where you start to make threats of the nature that Dr. Hirji received, it does give a lot of us some pause because I think the thing people forget is that ultimately we're living the same thing that everyone is living right now," Loh told CBC News.

"I haven't seen my family and friends for ages, I have family and friends that have lost jobs, that have seen their businesses shuttered," he said.

"Every decision that we make weighs very heavily on us and certainly those that we work with, but we recognize first and foremost that we're ultimately trying to forestall the outcomes or the disasters that have been seen elsewhere."

Death threats must not be tolerated, OMA says

The Ontario Medical Association has "strongly condemned those making death threats against public health officials." 

In a statement sent to CBC News, the OMA said, "Death threats and all forms of violence must not be tolerated here, or anywhere. We have seen where hatred takes us."

The association said that for more than a year, Ontario's doctors and public health officers have made enormous sacrifices, taken risks and worked around the clock to keep Ontarians safe.

"Let's not lose sight of our responsibility to take care of each other. Ontario's doctors call on everyone to work together to keep our patients, families and communities safe," the OMA said.

'No place for these kinds of threats': premier

"There is absolutely no place for these kinds of threats in Ontario. Cut it out." Ford tweeted on Saturday.

"Our health officials have only one priority: the health and well-being of their communities. We're lucky to have such dedicated public health officials in Ontario."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is outraged to hear about the alleged threats.

"This rhetoric is unacceptable, and I strongly condemn it," he tweeted.

Health officials criticized, threatened 

Last November, the medical officer of health in Windsor-Essex said he was a victim of online bullying after receiving threatening messages about his handling of COVID-19, which has prompted him to file complaints to police.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed got candid about the messages he and others at the health unit have received since the pandemic began. While he said he's been a victim of bullying before, it's only increased in recent months. 

"We have received many threatening letters to the health unit and also emails, which is, again, all understandable. People are frustrated, people are upset ... it is common, people are doing that, especially this time around, especially when everyone is suffering from impacts of COVID," Ahmed said.

"The message we want to share is it's not OK to bully anyone." 

Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region's medical officer of health, says, 'Every decision that we make weighs very heavily on us.' (CBC)

In April 2020, a federal Conservative leadership candidate suggested Canada's chief public health officer is working for China and should be fired for giving bad advice to the government on the COVID-19 crisis.

Derek Sloan, an MP from eastern Ontario, posted a message and video on Facebook and Twitter claiming that Dr. Theresa Tam had "failed Canadians."

With files from Philip Lee-Shanok and Jennifer La Grassa