Manitoba

Manitoba's education minister under fire for comments on right to refuse vaccines in midst of pandemic

Kelvin Goertzen is under fire for making a Facebook post in which he defended the rights of people who refuse to get a vaccine, when he shared a news story about a potential COVID-19 shot that could come to the U.S. this fall.

Post sharing CNN story and noting right to refuse vaccine was meant to be informative: Kelvin Goertzen

Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen is being criticized for making a Facebook post in which he said people 'absolutely' have the right to refuse vaccines, and that right 'should be protected.' (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba's education minister is under fire for a Facebook post in which he defended the rights of people to refuse to get a vaccine.

"For those who refuse to get a vaccine, that is absolutely your right! And it should be protected," Kelvin Goertzen, who was previously health minister in Premier Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government, said in a post Wednesday.

"For everyone else..." the post continued, sharing a CNN story that reported the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told states to prepare to distribute COVID-19 vaccines as early as the end of October.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the minister's post on his personal Facebook account is concerning, since Goertzen is the minister in charge of running flu clinics in schools.

Goertzen shared this post on his personal Facebook account on Wednesday. (Kelvin Goertzen/Facebook)

"It is completely bananas to me ... and it's not just any cabinet minister. This is a guy who's in charge of all the kids going back to school. He's in charge of their safety and their health," Kinew said outside the Manitoba Legislature on Friday.

"The questions remain: how do the members of Mr. Pallister's government feel about vaccines, [and] are they with the anti-vaxxers, or are they actually with the public health experts?"

Vaccination should be personal choice: minister

Goertzen said in a statement Friday he supports vaccination and gets a flu shot every year with his family. He said as the province's former health minister, he also participated in an annual vaccination promotional campaign.

"While I personally support vaccination, I also believe that vaccination should be a personal choice. There has never been a mandatory vaccine in Canada federally or provincially," he said.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has previously said the federal government wouldn't force Canadians to get a COVID-19 shot, as vaccinations are not federally mandated. In some provinces, though, some vaccinations are required before children can enrol in school.

University of Manitoba ethicist Neil McArthur said in his opinion, Goertzen's post is concerning because of his role in government.

"He says he was trying to be factual, and he is factually correct that it's not mandatory to get vaccines, and it will not be mandatory to have a COVID-19 vaccine.

"That said, the way he phrased it — which was to emphasize the right to refuse vaccines — I think potentially plays into the anti-vaxxer movement, and is very problematic coming from an education minister and a former health minister."

Ethicist Neil McArthur says the education minister should be encouraging people to get a vaccine when it's available, rather than highlighting the right to refuse one. (Warren Kay/CBC)

McArthur said as a government minister sitting during a pandemic, Goertzen should be promoting a vaccine, instead of highlighting the fact people have the right to refuse it.

"What the minister needs to be emphasizing is that we all need to get a vaccine once one is available that is safe and effective, and that it would be an act of irresponsibility not to receive one."

Dr. Anand Kumar, a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba, said in his professional opinion, a vaccine that would protect people against COVID-19 should only be mandatory if there is no other option.

"If the vaccine is highly effective, like a lot of the childhood vaccines — mumps, measles, rubella, etc. — then the fraction … of Canadians that surveys suggest would take the vaccine is actually over 80, 85 per cent," he said.

"That's sufficiently high that mandatory vaccination would likely not be necessary."

But he added that because certain provinces require children to be vaccinated, he doesn't see why a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 shouldn't be required for them as well.

About the Author

​Austin Grabish landed his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

With files from Patrick Foucault

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