Anti-vaxxers face few questions at legislative hearing on mandatory immunization
Opponents to proposed law that would eliminate all non-medical exemptions for students used up allotted time
Several anti-vaccination activists were given a nearly free ride Wednesday at the New Brunswick Legislature, presenting their views to a committee of MLAs and leaving almost no time for those elected officials to question or challenge their claims.
Three consecutive witnesses each used their full 30-minute time slots to attack proposed legislation to make vaccinations mandatory for school children except when they have medical exemptions.
They presented a range of arguments that have been largely debunked by medical and public-health experts, but that went mostly unchallenged by elected MLAs from four political parties.
Saint John East Progressive Conservative MLA Glen Savoie said the witnesses were not getting the scrutiny they should be getting at a legislative hearing.
Little time for questions
"That's not what I was anticipating or expecting at all," he told reporters. "I do believe that when their presentations are done, there should be enough time for members to fully flesh it out."
Ted Kuntz, the vice-president of Vaccine Choice Canada, used his appearance to call for "open and honest dialogue," but because his presentation took up his full half-hour, there was time for only two brief questions by a Liberal MLA.
Andrew Mader of Nova Scotia spoke uninterrupted for 30 minutes, linking his son Ethan's autism to vaccines. He was asked only one question about his son's diagnosis, though he said he would be available later in the day to provide more answers.
And Terra-Lynn Coggan of the group International Advocates Against Mandates, who warned of an "undercover dictatorship" unless "medical freedom" is added to the Constitution, faced no questions at all.
She offered to field questions, but the committee chair, Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason, told her her time was up.
Kuntz told reporters that he did not deliberately run out the clock and was willing to take questions from elected members on the sidelines.
"I hope that I'll have many opportunities with the MLAs over the three days I'm here to speak with them," he said.
Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee didn't criticize the lack of time for questions. He said it was "a delicate situation" and questioning parents about their children's illnesses might amount to putting them "on trial."
Later in the day, MLAs did get time to question some other witnesses though they asked few tough questions about their presentations.
When Diane Doucet of Bathurst compared the impact of the bill to slavery, Green MLA Megan Mitton called the comparison "inappropriate."
Platform a 'unique opportunity'
Kuntz's organization paid for the travel of two U.S. anti-vaccination doctors and an Alberta constitutional lawyer who appeared at the committee on Tuesday.
He said the hearings mark the first time vaccination opponents have had such a platform to espouse their views openly and in public to an elected government. He called it "a unique opportunity" to air their views.
Mader called the chance to testify "the most therapeutic experience I've had in eight years."
The legislation introduced by Education Minister Dominic Cardy in June would eliminate non-medical exemptions for children whose parents choose to not have them vaccinated.
Those children would not be allowed to attend public schools and would have to resort to private schools or home schooling.
Mader was not alone in linking his child's health problems to vaccines. Kuntz said that his son died from seizures that first appeared after he was vaccinated.
He told reporters he did not have any medical or scientific evidence of a link and didn't need one.
"When your child begins to seize after a vaccine shot, I don't need the doctor to tell me what happened to my son," he said.
Cardy tweeted Wednesday morning that there were "sad and awful stories" being told by parents at the hearing, but "they have nothing to do with the bill. They are not based on science. The manipulation of parents by groups like Vaccine Choice Canada is sickening."
It's feeling a bit premature to bring in a bill like this in response to a problem that hasn't been clearly defined.- Megan Mitton, Green Party MLA
Kuntz also told the committee that Vaccine Choice Canada would challenge the new law in court if it passes.
"How far would we go?" he said. "We would go to the Supreme Court of Canada."
But he would not tell reporters on what grounds he would mount a legal challenge.
"I think I'll leave it up to the lawyer to make those recommendations," he said.
Cardy said Tuesday that while he generally would not want to infringe on the freedoms of parents to choose, the risk to the broader school population makes it justifiable.
He acknowledged that it's not clear his bill, which would create the toughest vaccination requirements in Canada, would withstand a constitutional challenge.
Child and youth advocate weighs in
New Brunswick's child and youth advocate Norm Bossé told the committee Wednesday afternoon that he "generally encouraged" the bill's approach but said he had "some reservation" about it limiting children's access to schools.
He said that might be allowed under section one of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows "reasonable limits" on rights if the limits can be justified.
The Progressive Conservative government lacks a majority in the legislature so it will need the support of at least one other party to pass the legislation.
At least two MLAs signalled Wednesday that they may vote against it.
Mitton said with more than 18,000 incomplete vaccination records in six school districts, it's not clear the legislation is needed.
"We actually don't have a complete picture of the levels of vaccinations in our schools, so it's feeling a bit premature to bring in a bill like this in response to a problem that hasn't been clearly defined."
People's Alliance MLA Rick Desaulniers also questioned whether to bring in new measures without a clear picture of where things stand now.
McKee was non-committal on how the Liberals would vote.
"If science is right and accurate on this … the vaccines are the best way to eradicate disease," he said. "We have to look at the best interests of the children in this case, and if that means putting through a mandatory vaccine, that might be the way to go."