With anti-vaccination protests becoming a frequent occurrence in Ontario — including outside hospitals, where demonstrators have shouted down patients and staff — provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath is pushing for Premier Doug Ford to reconvene the legislature to put a stop to such "vitriolic harassment by anti-vaxxer mobs."
Horwath, MPP for Hamilton Centre, was outside McMaster Children's Hospital Friday, promoting a proposal that would create "safety zones" around hospitals and businesses where protests have escalated into harassment.
The bill, which can't be tabled until the legislature returns from an extended summer break, would make targeted harassment of people and businesses upholding public health rules in designated safety zones a provincial offence, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000.
"I believe in the right for people to protest, but what we have to stop is really violent vitriolic harassment and intimidation that's happening in these situations," she told CBC Hamilton on Friday, citing a recent incident at a Kingston hospital where a cancer patient was accosted by protesters. "It has to stop. We have tools we can engage to make that happen."
The protests have escalated over the federal election period, while Ford has kept out of the spotlight, pushing back the return to the legislature to Oct. 4, after initially setting it for Sept. 13.
Horwath says she'd like him to call MPPs back early to stop the harassment, which is targeting sick people and healthcare providers, who have no recourse or power to do anything about the situation.
'Healthcare workers do not make policy'
Horwath's Friday event follows recent protests outside Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington and the home of that city's mayor Marianne Meed Ward, which "included harmful messages, harassment and misinformation targeted against our medical and healthcare professionals, resulting in emotional distress and moral injury," according to a statement from "Burlington's community leaders" posted on the hospital's website.
"This type of protest undermines the hard work and sacrifices of hospital staff, physicians and first responders over the past year and a half and as we head into the fourth wave of this pandemic," states the release. "We condemn, in the strongest of terms, this targeted and misdirected abuse and harassment of healthcare workers that has occurred during these recent protests."
The statement asked protesters to take their messaging to decision-makers and away from private homes and healthcare providers. "We also ask you to be considerate of those who need access to our hospital for life-saving treatments and those visiting their loved ones. Healthcare workers do not make policy."
There were also reports on social media showing pictures of an anti-vaccination and anti-vaccine mandate rally marching through downtown Hamilton Friday afternoon.
Hamilton doctor receiving threats
Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician and assistant clinical professor of palliative care at McMaster University, says he's had numerous online threats of violence against him and his family after posting on Twitter about the pandemic and vaccines.
He says he's received racist attacks and death threats, from people questioning his expertise or suggesting he's in the pocket of "big pharma."
He's also had someone call the hospital where he works to try to speak with him directly about one of his tweets, which he says was simply factual information about vaccines.
Dr. Arya welcomes legislation that would put a protective bubble around hospitals, saying he's had several conversations with colleagues worried about the day protesters materialize at the facilities where they work.
"It's not just because health workers are scared of being harassed, we're scared for our patients," he said. "We are not legislators in the hospital. If people are unhappy, they should go to Queen's Park."