The House

Liberal MP backs anti-vax tax proposal as COVID cases surge

A Liberal MP who works as a medical doctor says he's in favour of making unvaccinated Canadians pay some kind of a special tax — and he believes others in his party agree.

'We already have taxes on tobacco. We have taxes on alcohol.' — MP Marcus Powlowski

Paramedics experiencing 'level zero' across the country, meaning there are no ambulances to send to incoming 911 calls. With lack of staff both in and outside of the hospitals, healthcare systems are struggling to keep up with patient flow. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A Liberal MP who works as a medical doctor says he's in favour of making unvaccinated Canadians pay some kind of a special tax — and he believes others in his party agree.

"We already have taxes on tobacco. We have taxes on alcohol, which are there for similar reasons because people who consume those products are more likely to end up in the hospital," said MP Marcus Powlowski in a panel discussion with fellow MPs airing Saturday on CBC's The House. "And as a result, we're all going to have to pay for their hospitalization."

Quebec Premier Francois Legault floated the idea of imposing a substantial tax on the unvaccinated this week as that province's hospital admissions continued to soar.

New federal modelling released Friday warned that the Omicron variant could lead to record levels of hospitalization in the weeks ahead.

The tax proposal is controversial. Opponents warn it could run afoul of the Canada Health Act's principles of universality and accessibility.

But Legault's idea also has its supporters.

Alberta resident Corina Heppner's young son Rossy was born with a rare neuromuscular disorder that severely curved his spine.

Surgery that would allow him to use his arms for the first time was scheduled for November and then cancelled because of the system constraints brought on by the pandemic. It hasn't been rescheduled.

Rossy Hipkin, 5, from Alberta was set to receive a surgery to treat his rare neuromuscular disorder but it was cancelled in late November of 2021 due to rising cases of COVID. (Submitted by Corina Heppner)

"You're preparing your child — we were telling him, 'You're going to get muscles in your arms, you're going to be able to move your arm.' And then it was, 'OK, well, you're not going to be able to do that.' So he was very, very upset," she told The House. "His life would have changed drastically right now."

Heppner said she wants those still refusing to get a vaccine to understand their decision has the potential to affect many others.

A mother describes how a cancelled surgery has affected her son, and MPs Marcus Powlowski, Stephen Ellis and Don Davies discuss Quebec’s proposed health tax on unvaccinated people.

"People being taxed for not getting the vaccination is a really good idea. Smokers get taxed. It's not a new idea," she said. "I think that at this point we have to do whatever we can to get through to some people."

Powlowski agreed.

"We ought to be doing it because, really, if you look at the numbers, the majority of people getting admitted to the hospital, the ICUs, are the unvaccinated," he said. "So whatever we can do to bring up the number of vaccinated people is certainly, in my mind and I think in the party's mind, desirable."

Marcus Powlowski, Liberal MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River, says something has to be done to ease pressure on hospitals caused by unvaccinated Canadians getting sick. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

His government's position is less clear. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters this week that he wants to see more details before commenting on whether the Quebec proposal could work.

What is clear is that the number of positive cases is surging to record levels across Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada said Friday that the number of people in hospital for COVID-19 has quadrupled since December, while the number of critical cases has doubled to a daily average of 884 patients.

Mandates aren't 'producing the results we want' — MP

Conservative MP Stephen Ellis, a family physician, worked as one of the medical leads in Nova Scotia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic before being elected last fall. He said governments are using bigger and bigger sticks to try to force people to get vaccinated.

"I don't know of any carrots that we've used here other than to say, of course, if you get vaccinated, your chance of getting sick is much less so," he said during The House panel discussion. "All we've done is given people mandates and clearly it's not producing the results that we want."

New Democrat health critic Don Davies said he also doubts that taxing the unvaccinated would work. He pointed out that some Canadians don't have the same access to vaccines as others.

"So I think the better way to go is, we've got to continue by giving proper information, education, and incentivizing vaccination," he said. "And I think that's a more productive way to go in the short term."

Both Davies and Ellis said more has to be done to distinguish between the vaccine-hesitant and those who are refusing to be vaccinated. Ellis said he's seen it in his own practice.

'Our job is to build trust'

"When someone came into the office and they had significant issues or hesitancy around ... vaccines or treatment, our job out there is to build trust, to build a relationship and then to encourage those people to develop that behaviour that we want to see changed," Ellis said.

"And when we do that in a kind and caring manner, in a hand-holding manner, in a way that shows those folks that we respect them and that we are content experts as well, we know then that the likelihood of change goes up significantly."

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said he wants the unvaccinated to be accommodated.

WATCH: Conservative leader accuses Trudeau government of 'normalizing' lockdowns

Conservative leader accuses Trudeau of 'normalizing' lockdowns

1 year ago
Duration 2:19
After the federal government's first COVID-19 press briefing of the year, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called on the Trudeau government to find new tools to fight the pandemic.

But frustrations are mounting as case counts soar and hospitals struggle to cope with staff fatigue and burnout.

The NDP's Davies said everyone can empathize with patients who have had surgeries and other medical procedures postponed because beds are being taken up by people who ignored the advice of public health officials.

"But I also think equally, we need to base our policy positions on evidence and science, and the NDP is interested in what works," he said.

"You know, we like to think of ourselves as the party of health care. We believe passionately in universal access to care without financial barriers, and we guard that principle very carefully. So, you know, the Quebec proposal is a novel one. It's unprecedented. There's no real evidence as to what impact it may have."

For now, Quebec's proposal for a tax on the unvaccinated is just a prescription, waiting to be filled.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc

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