Van Holst's vaccine objections earn sharp rebuke from mayor, other councillors

Instead of just voting to 'accept and receive' comments about vaccination policy from Coun. Michael van Holst, a few of his council colleagues shot back with criticism on Monday.

Ward 1 councillor chided for questioning COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness with no credentials

Ward 1 Coun. Michael Van Holst, photographed at city hall Feb 4, 2020. (Liny Lamberink/CBC )

Coun. Michael van Holst's council colleagues have established a routine response for pretty much each occasion he cries out against COVID-19 vaccination mandates.  

The Ward 1 councillor's correspondence or comments are generally "received for information" or accepted with a vote to "take no action." They call the vote, it passes with minimal comment and they move on. 

However, there was a different reaction on Monday at the corporate services committee during a discussion about bringing a vaccination policy for council members in line with the policy currently in place for city workers.

The draft policy would require city councillors to provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or submit a written attestation — either for medical reasons or a reason under the Ontario Human Rights Code — as to why they can't be vaccinated. Those who don't vaccinate would be required to complete a COVID-19 plan to ensure the safety of others working at city hall, and agree to regular antigen testing. Staff said the plan for each employee could be different. Some employees for example, might work from home. 

Van Holst again used the discussion to question the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. He provided two written submissions to the committee including one in which he said the vaccine amounted to a "toque and sandals" level of protection against the virus, instead of the "hard hat and safety boots" that were promised. 

However this time Mayor Ed Holder and van Holst's council colleagues did more than receive his comments and move on. 

'This does a disservice' mayor says

Holder said van Holst was lacking the credentials to question vaccine effectiveness when every other public officer of health in Canada, including London's, has said vaccines remain the best way to curb transmission and improve health outcomes to those who contract COVID-19. 

"I think this does a disservice," said Holder, who interrupted van Holst's comments about vaccine side effects with a point of order. "I'm going to challenge the credentials of our colleague [Van Holst] who is presenting his conjecture as fact. That's not only offensive, but it's exceptionally misleading."

Coun. Maureen Cassidy spoke about her reasons for following public health advice. Throughout the pandemic she's helped to provide care for her father, who is 88 and living with multiple health challenges. 

"I am doing everything in my power, including vaccinations and booster shots, to keep myself safe so that I don't kill my father," she said. "I'm tired of misinformation and disinformation being spread from the council floor." 

Coun. Shawn Lewis, who chairs the committee, said van Holst was "skating close to the edge" with his comments. 

Van Holst is the subject of an Integrity Commissioner's complaint previously filed by Holder for speaking at a rally of anti-vaccine groups last year. Van Holst also moved to create his own "creed" to battle vaccination rules at city hall.

Maxwell Smith is a bioethicist at Western University. 

While not commenting specifically about van Holst, he said opposition to vaccine mandates often hinge on a "freedom" argument, the idea that vaccine rules or mandates infringe on the right of a person to chose not to get the shot. Van Holst's creed is called the "Order of Freedom."

However, Smith said these arguments often don't account for the fact that opting against vaccination can have a negative effect on others and their freedom. 

"Without a vaccination mandate, we know that allowing the virus to spread unmitigated in our communities can severely affect the health of other people, it can kill people, it can lead to staffing issues, surgeries cancelled," said Smith. "So this can severely limit our liberties as well. Those who argue against vaccine mandates have to think about what the alternatives might be and I think that's what's missing from this debate." 

The councillor vaccination policy will come up for ratification at the Jan. 25 full council meeting.