Karrie Porter felt demoralized, staring at vulgar insults clumsily spray-painted on the side of her St. Catharines home a few days ago.
The night before, Ms. Porter, a part-time city councillor, had spoken out on social media against an anti-vaccination protest in front of the home of Mustafa Hirji, the region’s acting medical officer of health
“If goons are now intimidating doctors at their own private family home, then the new amendments to the Criminal Code under Bill C-3 should apply,” Ms. Porter had tweeted.
That bill, passed by the federal government in mid-December, amends the Criminal Code to include new intimidation offence to protect health care workers and people who are seeking health services. The federal government said the changes mean that individuals who intimidate or harass a health care worker could be charged and subject to a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
When Ms. Porter woke up the morning after her tweet, a text message from the next-door neighbour alerted her that she, too, had been targeted at home.
“She was quite upset and disturbed,” Ms. Porter said of the neighbour. “And so are the rest of my neighbours, to be honest. What people need to understand is I don’t live alone – I have two children and a husband. This is my private home, and this is unacceptable.”
One of the taglines sprayed on her vinyl siding – “united non-compliance” – suggested that this, too, was the work of protesters.
She reported it to the Niagara Regional Police.
“There is an incident number, and they said they’re investigating. I really think this needs to be taken seriously,” Ms. Porter said. “This isn’t an isolated incident.”
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise to record numbers across the country as a result of the Omicron variant, provincial governments and local public-health units have reintroduced restrictions on local businesses and social gatherings – which have in turn galvanized anti-vaccine groups. Protests were also held outside the homes of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott.
And on social media, health care workers have been the targets of harassment campaigns, including a recent post by the publisher of a far-right media website, in which he announced a $5,000 “bounty” for videos of certain outspoken doctors and politicians breaking lockdown rules.
For Ms. Porter, whose other part-time job is managing a housing support program at a local food bank, the vitriol has reached a new level.
“It’s honestly too much,” she said. “There’s legitimate anger out there, and I’m okay with anger and disagreement and protesting for change. But what happened here is not going to accomplish any of that.”
A spokesperson for Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones called these “petty tactics” and said that “the continued attempts to harass and intimidate public health officials, frontline health care workers, and members of the government is unacceptable.”
“In many cases, these protests end up targeting innocent people, such as family members and neighbours, who have nothing to do with public health advice or the government’s decision-making,” said spokesperson Stephen Warner by e-mail.
“These demonstrators have every right to come to the grounds of Queen’s Park like anyone else to express their views, but this continued harassment of innocent people has no place in Ontario.” He encouraged anyone with concern to contact police.
In the Niagara-region cases, police said they are “monitoring the situation closely, while balancing Charter issues and public-safety concerns.”
Niagara Regional Police Service spokesperson Stephanie Sabourin said that “with the increasing cases and resulting public-health restrictions, these are polarizing times that are challenging our ‘social norms.’ ”
She said that while the spray-painting on Ms. Porter’s house is being investigated as a criminal act of vandalism, they did not lay any charges in connection with the protest at Dr. Hirji’s home.
“The service is also very alive to the concerns of public officials and servants and have had direct contact with them to ensure their continued safety as well,” Ms. Sabourin said.
“There is nothing in law prohibiting a person, or group of persons from protesting at the personal dwelling of an individual. There were no charges laid last night in relation to the protest. A protest would cross the threshold if it extended onto private property of a residence and the persons were trespassing.”
Andrew Boozary, a family physician and executive director of the University Health Network’s health and social policy in downtown Toronto, recalls how unsettling it was to face protests outside a children’s vaccination clinic this summer. He was frightened, not for himself but for the families who had to wade through the angry mob to get their vaccine.
To now see tweets about “bounties” on his colleagues is surreal.
“It’s line after line [crossed],” Dr. Boozary said. “I don’t know how people can put out bounties to go follow people, and that not be an issue of public safety. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t understand how that’s something people or the police can think is okay.”
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