5 takeaways from hearings on mandatory vaccinations
MLAs from all political parties were moved by emotional anecdotes and unpersuaded by expert testimony
In retrospect, it was clear back in June that Education Minister Dominic Cardy's vaccination bill would not have an easy ride.
On June 11, Cardy brought the bill to the floor for second reading, hoping for a quick debate and passage before the legislature adjourned for the summer.
But the Opposition Liberals moved that the bill instead be sent to the law amendments committee — a longer, more detailed review with public hearings. The Greens and the People's Alliance agreed.
They wanted more time to scrutinize the bill, which would ban unvaccinated children from attending public school unless they had a medical exemption. Religious and philosophical exemptions would be eliminated.
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With a majority of MLAs wanting public hearings, Cardy agreed — but he also made a plea.
"I beseech the members of this legislature that when we meet in committee to discuss this matter," he said, "we hold the safety of our children upmost in our minds, and not be swayed by cranks on the internet, by misinformation and by, bluntly, lies that are told to us in pursuit of agendas that I will not speculate about in this house."
The hearings took place over three days last week. By the time they ended, MLAs from all parties were moved by the emotional personal anecdotes of parents, and unpersuaded by expert testimony. Several members said they weren't sure they'd vote for the bill.
Here are five takeaways from the hearings.
The well-organized can dominate the debate
The hearings were dominated by parents and activists opposed to the legislation. Many were encouraged to appear by Vaccine Choice Canada. The group paid the travel costs of two witnesses from the U.S. and one from Alberta.
"This is a unique opportunity," the group's vice-president Ted Kuntz said last week.
"This is the first time that the voices of families who have been injured by vaccines are having an opportunity to speak to government about the consequences of their policies."
There was no equivalent network of supporters of the legislation to turn out pro-bill witnesses and re-balance the debate.
Dr. Philippe Chouinard, a Moncton family physician who follows the vaccination debate on social media and supports the bill, said he wasn't surprised.
"I was expecting that the anti-vaccine movement would be present, and I think it showed New Brunswick what we're dealing with here," he said.
"They come prepared and they're well organized. … Possibly some people were caught off guard by that."
Chouinard said more expert testimony on the medical and financial costs of low vaccination rates might have helped.
But leading researchers in the field were not invited to appear. Natasha Crowcroft, an expert on epidemiology, vaccination and immunization at the University of Toronto, told CBC News she did not have any record of receiving an invitation.
And even if they had been invited, there would be no budget for them to travel to Fredericton.
Cardy distanced himself from the invitation list.
"That's a question you'd have to ask the chair of the committee here, because I wasn't responsible for who was invited," he said last week.
The committee chair, Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason, did not respond to an interview request.
Saint John East PC MLA Glen Savoie said several slots were set aside for professional organizations, and when some of them opted not to appear, those spots were "flooded" with additional witnesses tied to Vaccine Choice Canada.
"What this became was a forum for anti-vaxxers to get their message out," he said.
If you're going to call your opponents 'cranks,' they better look like cranks
At the opening of the hearings, Education Minister Dominic Cardy preemptively attacked opponents of vaccinations, labelling them well-organized liars and conspiracy theorists. In June, he called them "cranks."
While some witnesses presented widely discredited theories in disjointed fashion, others were polished and reasonable-sounding — not sounding like cranks at all.
Fredericton father Andy Clark, a lawyer and entrepreneur, brought his healthy, unvaccinated children with him when he testified. He opened with an offer to take everyone to Tim Hortons after the kids raided a tray of muffins set out for MLAs.
Then he invited them to weigh whether he fit Cardy's description.
"Am I dangerously misinformed? Am I a conspiracy theorist?" he said. "For the record, I do believe in gravity and I do believe in the moon landing."
Another parent, Lily Smallwood, gave emotional testimony about the serious illnesses her children developed after being vaccinated. Like Clark, she said she was not part of any anti-vaxxer group.
"I saw repeated references to people being stooges or shills, or people being brought here by an organization. The only person who brought me here was my husband, in our minivan."
Both parents ended up appearing more sympathetic than the picture Cardy had painted.
MLAs have a hard time scrutinizing sympathetic witnesses
Elected members of the legislature are politicians, so they're sensitive to public opinion by nature. They prefer to avoid antagonizing ordinary New Brunswickers.
So when reasonable-sounding witnesses like Smallwood testified about their belief that their children became ill because of vaccines, MLAs were unlikely to challenge them on whether their cases were typical.
Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins PC MLA Bruce Northrup told Smallwood that her desire to make her own decisions for her children "kind of explains everything."
People's Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers told her that her testimony "amplified in my mind some of the issues I've heard this week. … It's going to help me."
Other MLAs applauded the "courage" or "expertise" of parents telling their own stories. Liberal MLA Cathy Rogers told reporters that "lived experience" can become part of the scientific record.
Cardy told Radio-Canada he was "stunned" by the lack of scrutiny by his fellow MLAs. He said parents with stories of sick children had been manipulated by anti-vaccination groups, and elected politicians should not "forget their responsibility to defend facts and reality."
This debate scrambles the usual party discipline
MLAs from the two main parties, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals, rarely break ranks and vote against the party line. But new Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers says he'll allow his party's MLAs a free vote on the issue.
Vickers said he's not sure whether the proposed law is the best way to ensure more children are vaccinated.
It's not clear the PC government is united, either.
Midway through the third and final day of testimony, Anderson-Mason, a member of the cabinet, wouldn't commit to voting for the bill.
"I can't say that I've reached a conclusion until I've heard all the evidence," she told reporters.
That prompted Cardy to tell Radio-Canada that in our Westminster model of cabinet government, "if you can't support a government, you have to resign." He said Premier Blaine Higgs is committed to the bill.
Anderson-Mason could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Cardy doesn't take on easy targets
Cardy may be picking fights as education minister, but he's hardly choosing easy targets.
He declared he wanted the Confucius Institute, an education program backed by the Chinese government and labelled propaganda by critics, out of New Brunswick schools. He got his way, in part.
Now he's taking on an even bigger foe than China: the internet, and social media in particular, which he blames for spreading anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and untruths.
Getting dozens of requests from people asking how they can join the fight for science, safety, & vaccines. Easy! Write to your MLA & let them know you expect them to vote for Bill 39. Let me know if you can’t find their contacts. Let’s build a movement for a modern New Brunswick!—@DominicCardy
By the end of the three days, however, Cardy was left using social media platforms himself to rally support for his endangered bill. On Twitter, he asked supporters of the bill to write their MLAs and pressure them to vote for it.
"We need to see a reaction from the large, moderate majority in our province that believes in science and in evidence," Cardy said.