Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday September 24, 2021
Shocking anti-vaccine protests that plagued Canada’s election spawned resurgent far-right movement
While vaccines and mask policies are viewed favorably by most Canadians, the vocal minority who oppose them are a growing threat — not only to public health, but to public safety and even democracy itself.
Leading up to the election, anti-vaccine protests drew angry, unruly crowds outside hospitals and other health care facilities across Canada, blocking patients and employees trying to access the buildings, and in at least one instance, forcing cancer patients to get out of cars and walk through the unmasked mob. Protesters have reportedly verbally and physically assaulted health care workers, while others have used social media to issue threats of violence against doctors and nurses.
Last month, anti-vaccine protesters showed up at the home of an Ontario education minister and, upon learning that he wasn’t there, decided to harass his neighbours instead. On the campaign trail, Trudeau has been tracked by angry crowds of anti-vaxxers shouting profanities and making Nazi references. Less than two weeks after security concerns forced him to cancel a rally in Ontario, Trudeau was hit with gravel thrown by an anti-vaccine protester at one of his campaign events.
As election day neared, Canada’s anti-vaccine movement became more active — and more angry — than ever, and some extremism experts are worried about what will happen when the protesters no longer have an election to direct their outrage towards.
“They’re going to be trouble for some time,” Kurt Phillips, board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and founder of Anti-Racist Canada, told Canada’s National Observer. “The rage that exists in the movement — I don’t know where that goes [after the election]. It could explode.”
Nonetheless, possibly the first time ever in Canada, and certainly the first time in recent history, vaccination had taken the centre stage as a major campaign issue in the federal election.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the pandemic when he announced the election in August, saying voters deserve to have a say in who leads the country during its recovery from COVID-19. While mask requirements, vaccine mandates, and other restrictions are already in place, Trudeau promised to pursue an aggressive strategy to combat COVID if the Liberal government remains in power, and criticized his opponent, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, for opposing vaccine mandates. In August, Trudeau pledged a billion dollars to help provinces create their own vaccine passport systems — a move that has widespread public support.
Similar to in the U.S., the anti-vaccine movement in Canada is driven by a multitude of factors, including distrust of the government and other institutions, animosity towards experts and authorities, cultural grievances, rejection of mainstream science, and the creeping influence of extremism in mainstream discourse on the right. Much of the anger and opposition to vaccination is propelled by misinformation and conspiracy theories alleging that vaccines are unsafe, harmful, or part of some sort of plot aimed at establishing a biometric surveillance system or other form of government control.
The anti-vaccine movement has close ties to extremist groups, Christian nationalists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, run of the mill grifters and scam artists, and other right-wing causes like the Yellow Vest movement, which now airs its grievances under the banner of anti-vaccine activism.
“Every single prominent Yellow Vester that I’m aware of is now an anti-vaxxer,” Phillips said.
Like the Yellow Vest movement — which saw oil and gas pipeline protest being used as cover for right-wing extremist activity — the anti-vaccine movement has become entangled with far-right extremism as white nationalists and other extremists use the guise of vaccine skepticism to push increasingly extreme conspiracy theories targeting Jews, immigrants, health care workers, and others.
European populist parties like Italy’s Five Star Movement have grown their coalition by raising baseless concerns about vaccine safety and campaigning against vaccine mandates, resulting in decreased childhood vaccination rates and resurgences of diseases like measles. From the start of the pandemic, far-right extremists in Italy have flooded social media with articles blaming migrants for the deadly pandemic, while in Austria and Germany, far-right politicians have used the pandemic to spread conspiracy theories about vaccines and call for crackdowns on immigration. Anti-Semitic vaccine conspiracy theories have also been linked to a rise in hate crimes targeting synagogues and Jewish schools in Switzerland.
The link between populism and anti-vaccine sentiment is apparent in Canada, too. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) has capitalized on the grievance-based energy of the anti-vaccine movement to mobilize supporters and draw in new voters. PPC leader Maxime Bernier is a founding member of the “End the Lockdown Caucus” and has made opposition to public health measures such as mask mandates, vaccine passports, and lockdowns — which he calls “tyrannical” and “Orwellian” — a centerpiece of his campaign. (Continued: National Observer)