Manitoba

2 PC MLAs, Winkler mayor decry vaccine mandates, arguing they infringe on people's rights

The province's new rules requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for several non-essential activities are already eliciting pushback from some politicians within the Progressive Conservative caucus. 

Josh Guenter and James Teitsma publicly denounce new rules, going against party

PC MLA James Teitsma posted a lengthy statement Friday denouncing the province's vaccine mandates. He's one of two members of the Progressive Conservative caucus to criticize the new rules. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The province's new rules requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for several non-essential activities are already eliciting pushback from some politicians within the Progressive Conservative caucus. 

On Friday Dr. Brent Roussin and Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced a broad vaccine mandate that will restrict access to restaurants, fitness centres, theatres and ticketed sporting events, starting Sept. 3, to only people who show proof of vaccination. 

Earlier in the week, officials said a wide swath of provincial employees, including health-care staff, teachers and child-care workers, will have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 17 or submit to regular testing.

Two MLAs with the Progressive Conservatives — Josh Guenter and James Teitsma — have publicly denounced the mandates, each arguing they go too far in restricting people's freedoms. 

In a statement posted to Facebook, Teitsma, who is the MLA for Radisson, asked readers if they would rather be safe or free. 

"Canada prides itself on being tolerant and free. That pride has taken more than a few significant blows over the years," he wrote, listing residential schools, the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and sending Japanese Canadians to internment camps as examples. 

"One thing these human rights violations have in common: they were popular and favoured by the public," he wrote. 

Teitsma goes on to say he is fully vaccinated and believes in the importance of the vaccine, but doesn't think it should be forced on people by the government or other institutions. 

"Forcing or coercing them to be vaccinated is wrong. Threatening them with job loss counts as coercion. Telling them they cannot obtain a university education counts as coercion."

Teitsma faced disciplinary action from his party earlier this year for travelling outside the province with his family over the holiday season at time when Manitobans were being urged to stay home. 

Guenter, who represents the Borderland riding in southern Manitoba, wrote a letter to the premier's office saying vaccine mandates will only create more vaccine hesitancy among his constituents. 

"The more the government thrashes about trying to get people to take the vaccine, the less inclined my constituents are to listen," he wrote. 

Josh Guenter is the Progressive Conservative MLA for the Borderland riding in southern Manitoba. (James Turner/CBC)

He posited that some would walk off the job rather than take the vaccine, which may cause understaffing in hospitals, schools and other areas. 

In an interview, Guenter said there is a profound sense of mistrust of the government in his riding, which is partially why people are resisting getting vaccinated. He fears these vaccine mandates will only make it worse. 

"I think there's a lot of finger wagging going on, and I just don't think scorn or contempt or rebuke is going to encourage people to take the vaccine," he said. 

The mandates are in response to a looming fourth wave of the pandemic as the province tries to avoid another round of lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals. 

Asked about the MLAs' comments, the province's health minister said she was committed to working with all Manitobans to ensure they understand the importance of getting as many people vaccinated as possible — including MLAs. 

"It's about protecting our vulnerable populations, our children. And that is my focus, is to ensure that everyone comes onside and buys into ensuring that vaccination rates are increased," said Audrey Gordon. 

Comments unacceptable: NDP, Liberals 

Meanwhile, NDP Health Critic Uzoma Asagwara condemned the MLAs' statements, saying vaccinations are the most important tool we have to fight the pandemic and keep vulnerable persons, especially children, safe.

"It is shocking for two government MLAs to spread misinformation about public health while attacking measures meant to keep Manitobans safe," they said in a statement.

"It is also deeply offensive and harmful to compare vaccine mandates to the historic wrongs of residential schools — and flies in the face of reconciliation to make that comparison."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont went one step further, calling on the PCs to kick Teitsma out of caucus for his remarks, saying his comments were unacceptable in an emailed statement. 

The MLAs were not the only ones to criticize the province's vaccine mandates however. 

The mayor of Winkler, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the province, said he's also against them, arguing they're discriminatory and punitive. 

"As a community, as a province we need to be united. To drive the knife in, to separate and segregate people because of one particular issue, in my opinion it's just simply wrong," said Martin Harder. 

Harder said he was meeting with members of the business community Friday afternoon to discuss how they were going to approach the new rules. 

The new rules requiring proof of vaccination for certain activities come into effect Sept. 3. 

Manitobans will be required to wear masks in indoor public places again starting Saturday.

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