Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday ahead of a number of demonstrations against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19-related public health measures planned outside hospitals today across Canada.
Politicians and health-care organizations called the protests “completely unacceptable” and unfair to health-care workers and patients.
The protests were organized by Canadian Frontline Nurses, a group founded by two Ontario nurses who have promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and attended rallies in the U.S. for those who think the pandemic is a “fraud.”
The group posted notices of “silent vigils” expected to take place in all 10 provinces, saying they’re meant to critique public health measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
One of the group’s founders, registered practical nurse Sarah Choujounian, was at the Toronto protest.
“We have thousands with us across Canada, but obviously we’re only a few speaking because we’ve been fired,” said Choujounian, who formerly worked at a local long-term care home.
Organizers say they want to take a stand against what they call “tyrannical measures and government overreach,” adding that they are not encouraging nurses to walk out on their shifts or abandon patients.
But Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose province was among those targeted by similar past protests after he announced plans for a proof-of-vaccine system, condemned the latest round on Sunday in a tweet describing such events as “selfish, cowardly and reckless.”
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and Ontario Medical Association issued a joint statement “strongly condemning” the planned disruptions and calling for designated safe zones around health-care facilities to protect staff and patients — a proposal the province’s New Democrats have also floated.
“Nurses, doctors and other health-care workers have been working around the clock on the front lines of the pandemic for 18 months helping to keep our communities safe,” Sunday’s joint statement reads.
The University Health Network, which runs Toronto General Hospital, said staff who have cared for people dying of COVID-19 are particularly disheartened, noting health-care workers have been caring for COVID-19 patients for 18 months despite risks to themselves and their families.
“Vaccinations offer the best chance of preventing hospitalizations, admissions to ICUs and ventilations to preserve life,” the hospital network said in a statement.
“To see protests in front of hospitals is demoralizing for all who work here but particularly for the staff who have cared for the people dying of COVID-19, often without all of their family and loved ones around them.”
Kenney condemns protests
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney condemned the planned protests at hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary, saying peaceful demonstrations are a constitutional right but they also have limits.
“In Alberta, local law enforcement is fully empowered to enforce the law in a timely fashion, including the potential use of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act,” Kenney said in a statement posted online.
The act, passed in the spring of 2020, allows fines against any person or company found to have blocked, damaged or entered without reason any “essential infrastructure.”
Several nurses and doctors at the Ottawa Hospital said last week they had to constantly remind themselves that the protesters were not the majority.
Dr. Kwadwo Kyerementang, head of critical care at The Ottawa Hospital, said it’s important to not let the small numbers who are protesting undermine the positive reaction health workers have received from most Canadians.
“I don’t want the select few to be the loud voice,” he said. “Our staff, they’ve hustled, they’ve put in the extra mile there. And I know most of Canadians, most of Ontarians, most of the people in Ottawa are so appreciative of our efforts. We hear it daily.”
Kyerementang also said protesting is fine but blocking access to hospitals for patients is not.
“The one thing that I would say that does bother me is whatever your protest should be, it shouldn’t obstruct care,” he said.
“These COVID-19 heroes need the resources and supports to continue the battle — now in the thick of a fourth wave. They cannot and must not be distracted, or worse, discouraged by protests at the doorsteps of their workplaces.”
At least one Toronto emergency nurse agrees.
“There’s been harassment and bullying,” said Vikky Leung, a nurse at a Toronto hospital who created a petition over the weekend also calling for the creation of safety zones around hospitals.
“There’s been emails telling my colleagues not to wear scrubs or anything that identifies them as health-care workers and I think that’s truly upsetting and scary.”
Leung is on maternity leave, but said she has felt fear and frustration after hearing from her colleagues about their experiences.
“People [are] stressed out and disheartened and really feeling unappreciated,” she told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday.
“It’s hard to see that when you’re going into work and leaving work, these people spending their time and energy to promote that kind of propaganda.”
Staff will be protected, Toronto mayor says
Toronto Mayor John Tory also took to social media to condemn the protests planned for some city hospitals, adding he’s been in contact with the local police chief about the events and received assurances that staff would be protected and patients could access the buildings.
“I support police in taking whatever action is necessary to protect the lives of innocent people seeking medical care and all of our healthcare heroes,” Tory wrote on Twitter.
“We have long passed the time when we can have this tyranny of a few interfere with access to health care during a pandemic.”
Tory said he has asked the city if it can legally establish a “protective zone” around hospitals to ensure workers can get in and out safely.
Toronto police say they will issue charges where necessary.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it is wrong to protest at hospitals.
“No health-care worker, no patient, no one seeking health care should in any way be limited or have a barrier to getting the care they need,” he said while campaigning in Sioux Lookout, Ont.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also expressed frustration.
“This type of harassment and protest in front of hospitals is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Past protests have centred on both public health measures and the prospect of proof-of-vaccination systems that would limit access to many public settings for those who have not been immunized against COVID-19.
British Columbia’s system takes effect on Monday, while Ontario’s is set to launch on Sept. 22.
Quebec’s rolled out earlier this month, Manitoba began issuing vaccine cards in June, and both Nova Scotia and Yukon have said proof-of-vaccination systems are in the works.