Conservatives get tangled in anti-vaxxers’ web

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But by associating with these extremists, Tory appeal to ordinary Canadians is diminished. Short-term gain for long-term pain.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 31, 2022.

OTTAWA—Hundreds of anti-vaxx truckers descended on Ottawa on Saturday and the longer the convoy actually goes on, the more the Conservatives seem to be tangled in the anti-vaccination web.

Now even the New Democrats have been embroiled in the drama after the brother–in-law of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh donated $13,000 to support the convoy.

According to Singh’s office, his relative did not fully understand what the convoy was up to and has now applied to have his funds reimbursed through a GoFundMe process.

Meanwhile, the truckers are rolling in the dough with more than $6-million already collected in support of the convoy.

With the funding come questions as to exactly what the money will be used for. Tamara Lich, convoy organizer, is associated with the Maverick Party, a separatist movement in Alberta. She also launched the GoFundMe page which has been under review by the funding platform because of questions about the transparency of the flow of funds and the plan for disbursement.

However, the truckers have no support from any official provincial or national trucking organization. The international vaccine requirement for truckers was instituted both by Canada and the United States, effective mid-January. Almost 90 per cent of international truckers are already vaccinated so convoy protesters represent a very small number of commercial trucking operations.

Truckers are actually ahead of the rest of Canada when it comes to the numbers of fully vaccinated workers.

That hasn’t seemed to stop the Conservatives from throwing their support behind the movement, with vocal, high-profile approval from former leader Andrew Scheer and current deputy leader Candice Bergen.

Likewise, leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis has accused the vaccine mandate of promoting segregation. Outspoken critic Pierre Poilievre has called the federal requirement a “vaccine vendetta.”

As usual, leader Erin O’Toole is sending out a confusing vaccine message. On the one hand, he refused last week to say whether he planned to meet with truckers, but his caucus was collecting signatures for a petition seeking the reversal of the vaccine mandate for federal workers and international truckers.

If the GoFundMe response is any indication, the Tories could raise a lot of money by jumping on the anti-vaxx wagon. But they also risk alienating a huge percentage of the population that is simply fed up with the refusal of anti-vaxxers to consider science and society in defending their positions.

Just last week, Canadian musical icon Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify after the music streaming platform refused to drop anti-vaxxer and podcaster Joe Rogan. In another health twist, a Boston hospital patient was removed from the wait-list for a heart transplant after refusing to be vaccinated.

The hospital explained its decision by saying vaccination is a lifestyle behaviour “required for transplant candidates … in order to create both the best chance for a successful operation and to optimize the patient’s survival after transplantation.”

The medical community is unanimous, and the public is not far behind, in Canada and globally.

Tennis whiz Novak Djokovic was literally run out from Down Under after failing to meet Australian Open tennis vaccination requirements. Djokovic said he was planning on studying the matter further after he was deported. He faces the same requirement for the upcoming French Open and apparently may take a pass there as well.

Bearing the new nickname NoVax, Djokovic has allied himself with the same group of vaccine deniers who came to Ottawa.

Some of the Canadian protesters have even gone so far as to suggest they wanted to replicate the Jan. 6 takedown of the American capital, which resulted in five deaths.

Two Canadian convoy participants were photographed—one wearing a Donald Trump MAGA hat and the other wearing a yellow star of David—mimicking the Nazi requirement for Jewish identification.

Convoy organizers have distanced themselves from racist supporters but that didn’t stop white supremacist Paul Fromm from tweeting “I pray this is Canada’s Budapest, 1956, when patriots and ordinary citizens rose up and overthrew tyranny.”

With so few anti-vaxxers, why would the Conservatives even bother to align themselves with the so-called “Canada Unity Convoy.”

Some of it is about building a power base, with petitioners getting embedded into future Conservative communications. Some is about raising money, because the angry folks attached to this convoy are ripe for campaign donation pitches.

But by associating with these extremists, Tory appeal to ordinary Canadians is diminished.

Short-term gain for long-term pain.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.