Vaccine mandates and passports loom large in the election's final days
The swing riding of King-Vaughan is offering up an example of fractious pandemic politics
Far from being focused on Canada's post-pandemic recovery, the federal election has during the last 35 days become a debate over how best to end the pandemic as much of the country struggles with the fourth wave.
The parties are split over the issues of vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination. The Liberals favour both measures, while the Conservatives — who support vaccination and alternatives like rapid testing — are rejecting them.
It's a controversy that candidates say is having an impact in some of the most important ridings in the country, such as King-Vaughan in the Greater Toronto Area.
"That's what we're hearing — 'I'm vaccinated, I'm comfortable, why do I have to get a passport?' That's a question that's asked daily," Anna Roberts, the Conservative candidate in King-Vaughan, told The House for a segment airing Saturday.
Roberts is looking to take a seat that Liberal Deb Schulte won by just a few percentage points in the last two elections. She said she's on board with the Conservatives' approach.
Regular, rapid testing is a fair alternative to requiring vaccination, she said.
"We can't force people to do something," she said. "We're not in a dictatorship. So why don't we give them the option to at least do the rapid testing?"
Swing riding seeing protests
The matter of vaccine mandates and passports drew protesters to King-Vaughan last month. Raucous protests trailed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during a visit to a bakery in Nobleton, Ont., and then led to the cancellation of a party event in Bolton, just outside the riding.
Schulte said the debate is energizing Liberal supporters as well.
"People want to see this behind them," she said. "They know they can't move forward if we back off on being able to get people vaccinated. So they're very much talking to me about the difference between the parties."
Trudeau has described some of the protesters at his events as "anti-vaxxer mobs." Schulte uses more diplomatic language.
"It's a pandemic, right? And so they're just feeling frustration and it's coming out ... through some inappropriate behaviour," she said.
The controversy over vaccine mandates and passports seems to be driving the People's Party of Canada's rise in the polls. The PPC vehemently opposes vaccine passports or compulsory inoculation.
PPC Leader Maxime Bernier, who says he is not vaccinated, has said his party is not anti-vaccine or anti-masking but supports freedom of choice.
He has railed against lockdowns and other public health measures and has repeatedly told his rallies that "when tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty." The House requested an interview with the PPC candidate in King-Vaughan but did not receive a response.
Roberts said she hasn't come across many PPC supporters in King-Vaughan but her message to them is clear: "If they want change, the only party that's going to deliver change is the Conservative Party."
Vaccine passports an 'inevitability': expert
The debate is not limited to suburban-rural Ontario. On Wednesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reversed course and announced new restrictions and a vaccine passport system. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe followed suit with a passport system on Thursday.
The policy shift by those two conservative premiers is one indication that vaccine passports are "inevitable," Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of Toronto, told host Chris Hall of The House.
Banerji said she's hoping that vaccine passports will prompt more people to get vaccinated.
"I think society is shifting where [it's] not only businesses ... saying, you know, we need vaccine passports, but people are saying, 'If you want to come to my house, if you want to come to my barbecue, et cetera, you need to be vaccinated,'" she said.
Françoise Baylis, a professor of philosophy with a special interest in bioethics at Dalhousie University, said that while passports might convince some people to get the shot, there's evidence to suggest that they have little effect on many people.
"For example, while we've heard that proof of vaccination has resulted in a significant increase in Quebec, it hasn't had the same proportionate increase in Alberta," she said.
Baylis said she worries that governments might use the introduction of vaccine passports as an opportunity to end the existing public health measures that have helped to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"I'm worried about a false sense of security because we're actually trading this proof of vaccination for a lot of the other public health measures that have worked for us well thus far," she said.
With files from Jennifer Chevalier