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Caitlin Salvino is a current PhD (Law) candidate at the University of Oxford where she studies as a Rhodes Scholar. Her doctoral studies focus on the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, including its recent attempted use for school vaccination programs in New Brunswick.

These days, it’s difficult to remember a time when vaccines weren’t a part of our daily conversations. Before COVID-19, however, one Canadian province was already plenty familiar with these discussions.

In the spring of 2019, before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, New Brunswick was enduring outbreaks of three diseases that are relatively rare in Canada – measles, whooping cough and gonorrhea. In response, the provincial government introduced Bill 39, An Act Respecting Proof of Immunization an effort to close a loophole in its policy of mandatory vaccinations for public-school students by removing non-medical exceptions that had been increasingly used by vaccine-hesitant parents. But despite the seemingly simple intent of the legislation, Bill 39 faced fierce opposition, and the effort was ultimately defeated.

The issues began in the public-hearing stage of the legislative committee’s process. When the speaking slots reserved for healthcare professionals were not filled, they were offered to the public, and Vaccine Choice Canada, a prominent anti-vaccination group, mobilized quickly to take up the available slots. This well-funded group went on to dominate the hearings with their unsubstantiated and, in some cases, outright false vaccine information. The group flew U.S. doctors who were against vaccination into New Brunswick to testify to the committee, co-ordinated local parents to share anecdotes of alleged vaccine harm, overwhelmed legislators with communications and physical threats, and vowed to take the legislation to the Supreme Court.

The legislative committee also heard from concerned New Brunswick parents, such as Andy Clark, a New Brunswick lawyer who presented his anti-vaccination viewpoints reasonably. “Am I dangerously misinformed? Am I a conspiracy theorist?” he asked legislators. “For the record, I do believe in gravity and I do believe in the moon landing.” Lily Smallwood, a New Brunswick mom of three, shared her own emotional story of perceived harm caused to her children following vaccinations. “I saw repeated references to [anti-vaccination] people being stooges or shills, or people being brought here by an organization,” Ms. Smallwood said. “The only person who brought me here was my husband, in our minivan.” Following presentations by both by anti-vaccination organizations and parents, and paired with a lack of significant counterpoint, the legislators shifted their support against the legislation, resulting in its failure.

The ultimate rejection of Bill 39 has important lessons that should guide us in our rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada. The most important one is that, in contrast to the dominant narrative that vaccine opposition comes from distant aunts or uncles or conspiracy-minded old high-school acquaintances sharing extreme theories on Facebook, anti-vaccination rhetoric often comes from people who are local, relatable and believable.

In fact, this inaccurate narrative and stereotype is unhelpful in tackling anti-vaccination beliefs. In the lead-up to the public hearings, New Brunswick’s Education Minister Dominic Cardy used terms such as “losers,” “medieval propagandists” and “cranks on the internet” to describe such groups. These warnings of extreme internet activists ended up backfiring, however, when the legislative committee heard from parents who shared their emotional and believable – if scientifically unproven – stories of vaccine harm and fears. The committee members were significantly affected by those from the community who seemed completely different from the kinds of people they were expecting. Following their testimony, the legislators even applauded the parents for their “courage”; one told Ms. Smallwood that her desire to make decisions for her children “kind of explains everything.”

New Brunswick’s failure in dealing with this issue tells us that Canadians at large must avoid underestimating or demonizing those opposed to vaccinations. Although it is tempting to focus solely on the loudest on the internet, those opposed to vaccination must be taken seriously in their ability to convince the public, vaccine-hesitant parents and lawmakers of their cause. This recognition must guide any policy regarding the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine – because if we ignore that message, what happened in New Brunswick may play out again, on a national scale.

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