The Liberals and the NDP are pledging to crack down on anyone who blocks access to health care facilities, following another wave of protests outside Canadian hospitals in opposition to COVID-19 restrictions.
At an election campaign stop in Vancouver on Monday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said a re-elected Liberal Party would make it a criminal offence to obstruct access to buildings where health care is provided, such as hospitals, pharmacies and clinics. The party would also, he said, ensure that people who intimidate health care workers or patients accessing care would face criminal penalties.
“It is not okay that across the country hospitals are having to put up barricades today to manage the mobs coming their way,” he said. “It’s not okay any day to know that a nurse going into a late shift crossing a parking lot might be afraid that there could be someone there to spit on her, or shout obscenities at her.”
There are already specific protections in the Criminal Code against intimidation of journalists and justice system workers, Mr. Trudeau said.
Also on Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made a similar promise. At a campaign stop in Sioux Lookout, Ont., he said his party would make it a federal offence to harass or obstruct someone accessing medical care, and would also institute tough new penalties for assaulting health care workers.
“If you’re in any way threatening health care workers, impeding their ability to go to work, you’re impeding patients’ access to care,” he said. “If cancer patients aren’t being able to get into the hospital, that is just not on.”
At a news conference the same day, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole condemned harassment of patients. “To harass and to try and block people from accessing health care in a pandemic is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Experts say police already have the powers they need to arrest and charge people in these circumstances.
Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said those who harass health care workers or patients can be charged with mischief, which carries a potential maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
“Interfering with the use and access to hospitals is a clear criminal offence, even in the context of a protest,” Mr. Brown said.
Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, agreed that protest-related harassment can be handled under existing laws. But she added that not all actions that make others uncomfortable are necessarily illegal.
“I think in the last 18 months we’ve gotten used to having a law that dictates everything, and I don’t think that’s really the right way to approach these things,” Ms. Zwibel said. “Law is not always the solution to every problem. We have ample laws to deal with instances where people are threatening and harassing people.”
A group calling itself Canadian Frontline Nurses organized around 20 protests across the country on Monday, most of them at hospitals. One rally at Vancouver’s city hall drew around 200 people. Speakers jeered at the media and spoke of defending personal freedoms against mask mandates or vaccination requirements.
There were no reported serious disruptions at hospitals on Monday, but past protests have drawn criticism for obstructing health care. Two weeks ago, a Vancouver protest attracted upward of 1,000 people, who blocked access to Vancouver General Hospital, forcing some patients to walk for blocks to get inside.
In Ontario, about 120 people protested in front of Toronto General Hospital on Monday, some waving placards calling vaccines “genocide,” “rape” and “terrorism.” Others handed out flyers warning that vaccine passports were the biblical “Mark of the Beast.” Some protesters got into arguments with a small number of counterprotesters, who carried signs praising vaccines.
Police, who kept the crowd clear of the hospital’s driveway, said there were no reports of harassment, or of people being blocked from entering the hospital.
Sarah Choujounian, an organizer with Canadian Frontline Nurses, told reporters that she had lost her job as a nurse at a long-term care home for “speaking out” about the pandemic, and that her nursing licence is under investigation. She denied she was an “anti-vaxxer.”
She said she wanted to ensure nurses were allowed to make an “informed choice” before receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. She also defended the choice to protest outside hospitals.
“For a year and a half, at all the city halls and all that, we were not being heard,” Ms. Choujounian said. “But also, we are here to support the nurses inside.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney condemned the protests Monday, calling them “appalling judgment.”
“It is outrageous that a small minority feel it’s appropriate to protest at hospitals during the pandemic while our health care workers continue to tirelessly battle the global menace of COVID-19,” he said in a statement.
Police are “fully empowered” to enforce the law, he said, including by using Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.
The act allows for fines up to $25,000 and prison terms up to six months for people who obstruct, interrupt or interfere with anything the province deems essential infrastructure.
Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton who has been publicly vocal about the grim realities of the pandemic, said in an interview that police had informed him late Sunday night that there were threats against his life. He blamed disinformation, and poor leadership from elected officials who have politicized health for personal gain.
“In the short term, it works. In the long-term, it breeds a culture of distrust of experts and critical thinking,” Dr. Markland said. He had protective services at his office on Monday as people protested outside.
He pleaded with local leaders to intercede.
“They have to take a political beating to do the right thing so we can turn this around. It’s going to be hard to convince people to do that. But it’s morally and ethically correct.”
With reports from Kristy Kirkup and Emma Graney
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