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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole replaces his mask at the end of a news conference responding to the federal government’s COVID-19 response, on Parliament Hill on Jan. 6.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole was asked recently what he would say to those Canadians still refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

This would be the same group largely responsible for intensive care units across the country being stretched beyond capacity, and for other potentially life-saving treatments such as heart and cancer surgery being postponed as a result.

“Get vaccinated,” Mr. O’Toole said in response to a reporter’s question.

Which is fine as far as it goes. It was what came after that was problematic, with the Conservative Leader reiterating his stand against vaccine mandates and lockdown measures in response to rising COVID-19 case numbers. It’s Mr. O’Toole’s belief that you can’t coerce people into getting vaccinated; you need gentle persuasion.

This, of course, is ridiculous and a tactic that continues to be futile.

It’s doubtful Mr. O’Toole actually believes what he is saying – he just has little choice but to say it. He has his job to worry about and that job is leading a fractious caucus that includes a strident wing of freedom fighters who believe Canadians should not have their rights and liberties “trampled on” by government, regardless of circumstance.

Even if that causes a crisis in our health care system.

You see, if Mr. O’Toole upsets his freedom fighters, he risks creating a cleavage in his caucus that would imperil his position. He’s also aware that a faction of the conservative base went running into the arms of Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada in the last election largely over the issue of vaccine mandates. So the Conservative Leader goes along, defending a defenceless policy.

The number of people who are unvaccinated in Canada is a distinct minority – around 10 per cent of people over the age of 12 as of this week. Governments across the country have tried everything to persuade these folks to do the right thing by their fellow citizens and get a jab. They’ve been offered a chance to win money and free trips. They have been spoken to nicely. It hasn’t been a solution for the most hardened holdouts.

Mandates have worked. Mandates are all governments have left in their arsenal to persuade the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves.

Even then, governments will not persuade the most rabid anti-vaxxers to change their views. I’m talking about the same people who showed up to protest in front of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s house on the weekend holding signs that compared what is happening to the unvaccinated in Canada with the beginning of the Holocaust. And the folks who showed up at the homes of other Alberta politicians with the same message.

These are some of the same people who, in response to a recent column, sent me e-mails saying I will be “executed” for “crimes against humanity,” and that I should enjoy “my remaining days on earth.” (Other journalists have received them too.) Does Mr. O’Toole honestly believe these people are simply in need of “answers to their questions” about the vaccine to have their minds changed?

Please.

For the most part, Canadians are a tolerant bunch, but they have lost all patience for vaccine holdouts and the incomprehensibility of their position. The unvaccinated refuse to put a “poison” in their bodies and yet, if they arrive in an ICU on death’s door, they happily allow doctors to pump any number of unknown drugs into their bodies to keep them alive.

Nor do they seem to care that what is now being called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is taking a brutal toll on front-line health care workers who are in desperate need of a break from all this. And yet the COVID-19 death rate in Canada has tripled in the past two weeks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re allowing it to.

Mr. O’Toole may feel that “reasonable accommodation” must be made for vaccine holdouts, but that is surely a minority position in Canada today. On the contrary, the majority want more vaccine mandates to persuade the unvaccinated to do the right thing.

They must feel the walls closing in on them even more. To this end, Quebec Premier François Legault announced Tuesday that those in his province who refuse to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons will soon have to start paying a “significant” health care tax – a drastic move that will no doubt receive broad public support, as it should.

If some want to call this an unfair demonization or marginalization of our fellow citizens, go for it. That’s certainly how some will prefer to see it. Others will view it differently. Others will see vaccine mandates as measures that might help end the hostage-taking that the unvaccinated have been carrying out in Canada for far too long now.

Erin O’Toole is on the wrong side of this issue. And the people of this country may not forget it.

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