An anti-vaccine group called Canadian Frontline Nurses has organized yet another series of protests against vaccination mandates for essential workers across Canada on Monday.
The group converged Monday on “hospital row,” the strip of University Avenue which houses Toronto General Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, among others.
The crowd, which carried signs that spread dangerous misinformation about the vaccine and perpetuated conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a hoax, spent several hours in front of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, where they loudly chastised health-care workers who arrived to counter-protest.
The protesters also turned their attention towards journalists on site to cover the event, calling media “the enemy of the people.” One man suggested that rocks should be thrown at reporters, a reference to the handful of gravel lobbed at Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail last week.
A large police presence met the protesters in front of the hospital, with officers on bicycles forming a protective line in front of the hospital’s entrance. Better protection for health-care workers was requested after the nationwide protests earlier this month that blocked streets and saw health-care workers shouted at by attendees.
In front of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, health-care workers have formed their own counterprotests, holding signs that read “protect hospitals” and “proud to be vaxxed.”
Chloe Baker, a counter-protester who turned out to support health-care workers, said she disagreed with the protesters who claim their Charter rights are being violated by vaccine mandates. “You’re allowed your rights and freedoms until they infringe on someone else’s rights and freedoms,” she said.
Believing that vaccines pose a violation of Charter rights is an “egregious and complete misunderstanding” of the need for vaccines in order to protect public health, Baker said.
She was not alone in her counter-protest.
David Renzetti, who carried a deliberately-misspelled sign proclaiming “I know more than the scietists (sic)” and “I demand my right to be ignarant (sic) and selfish,” told the Star this was the first anti-vaccine protest he had attended.
“These people are demanding their right to ignorance and selfishness,” Renzetti said, adding that while he believes everyone has a right to an opinion, he felt those rights end when they translate into harm towards others.
Sarah Choujounian is a co-founder with Canadian Frontline Nurses, the group associated with the coast-to-coast protests Monday. She claims she was fired twice from both her long-term-care nursing jobs for spreading “the truth” about vaccines, but says she received vaccinations “before she did her research.” Choujounian’s bio on the group’s website also says her licence is under investigation.
She also said she attended a protest at the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6 and lost her job after she was identified in photos. Choujounian says she was not involved with the far-right insurgency.
This will be the second time this month that the organization has headed protests in front of Canada’s hospitals. The group’s website claims to seek to “restore our freedoms and rights as Canadian citizens,” and focus on “preventative care (and) more natural healing.”
The protest at hospital row is a far cry from the silent vigil held earlier in the afternoon on the Queen’s Park lawn by a group that purpoted to be first responders who were against vaccine mandates.
Around noon, protesters there held what they called a “silent vigil,” asking people to bring flowers and signs to “honour those affected by measures put in place over the last year and half.”
About 200 unmasked people were seen standing elbow-to-elbow and wearing shades of blue and black, as supporters stood on the side looking on.
While those protesting vaccine mandates claim that they’re not against the jabs themselves, supporters watching the protest livestreamed the vigil to social media and were observed by the Star filming themselves sharing misinformation about vaccines and side effects.
People attending sang “O Canada” and chanted “freedom.” Some of the supporters carried signs, including one that equated vaccine mandates to sexual assault.
A number of organizations have spoken out denouncing the twin protests.
The University Health Network, which operates Toronto General Hospital, tweeted Monday that the protest was “very concerning and disheartening.”
“Teams at UHN have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, often putting their own well-being aside, to protect those most at risk in our community. They have fought to keep the community safe, and deserve that same right to safety when coming to work,” the UHN said.
“Demonstrations outside of hospitals not only put health care workers & staff at risk, but also patients who come to the hospital for care,” the UHN said, adding that, “UHN Security teams and Toronto Police Services are aware and will work to ensure safe access for staff and patients to the hospitals.”
In a press release, the Liberal Party of Canada said that if re-elected, they will introduce legislation that makes it a criminal offense to obstruct access to buildings providing health services or intimidate health-care workers carrying out out their duties, or patients on their way to receive care.
“I am deeply disturbed by anti-vaxxer gatherings outside of hospitals and health care sites in the last few weeks,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. “These people are intimidating our health care heroes and putting Canadians seeking health services at risk. I will not accept this. That’s why we’re going to take strong action to ensure everyone has access to the care they need and keep our front-line health care workers safe. Only our Liberal team will finish this fight against COVID-19 and keep our communities safe and healthy.”
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Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters Monday he has asked officials to see if the city can legally establish a “protective zone” around hospitals where protestors are not allowed to go.
If the city can’t establish such no-protest zones, similar to those around abortion clinics, Tory said he’d happily talk to the provincial and federal governments about working together to ensure hospital staff and visitors can come and go easily and safely.
The mayor said protestors abusing, harassing and obstructing hospital staff and patients is “completely unacceptable … and I think the more we can do to provide a clear line that you can’t go beyond in obstructing or otherwise harassing people who work in hospitals or places like that, the better.”
“I would certainly be quite happy to entertain discussions with either the provincial or federal governments with respect to anything that need be done to further protect those kinds of places,” he added.
Tory noted that as mayor he can make his opinion known about police enforcement but does not have the power to direct it. He said he spoke Sunday with James Ramer, Toronto’s interim police chief, and was assured that hospital staff will be “protected” and ambulances and visitors not obstructed.
The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) as well as the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) have called for safe zones around hospitals and other health settings to protect patients seeking care as well as health-care professionals trying to work.
Doris Grinspun, CEO of RNAO, told the Star that these protests obstruct patients from getting into hospitals for medical care and health-care workers from doing their job. Grinspun says authoritative action against such demonstrations is well overdue.
“Any minute that we wait is a minute too late. It’s a minute where colleagues are calling me to say that they’ve had it. They’ve had it because (for) 18 months, they’ve worked non-stop giving it their all,” Grinspun said. “Just picture this other unnecessary stress on them.”
At Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the province needs to do more to protect doctors, nurses, support staff and patients. Horwath is pushing for legislation that would create “safety zones” around hospitals and small business to limit such protests.
“No one should have to walk a gauntlet of harassment and intimidation to get to a hospital. Not people who are sick. Not their families. And not the very health-care workers who have been working tirelessly to save people from COVID-19,” she said.
Premier Doug Ford denounced the hospital demonstrations, even as he was accused of not doing enough to curb them.
“The protests we’re seeing outside of hospitals are selfish, cowardly and reckless,” Ford said on Twitter.
“Our health care workers have sacrificed so much to keep us all safe during this pandemic. They don’t deserve this kind of treatment — not now, not ever,” he tweeted. “Leave our health care workers alone.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott said she was “extremely disappointed to see our hospitals and staff being the target of protests after all of their sacrifice during the pandemic.”
“Peaceful protest is a right, but patients and our health-care heroes do not deserve to be intimidated or obstructed from accessing or delivering care,” said Elliott.
Liberal Leader Steve Del Duca blasted Ford for not taking the protests more seriously.
“Enough is enough,” said Del Duca.
“Doug Ford needs to take action to protect our most vulnerable from the dangerous anti-science protests we’re seeing at hospitals across Ontario,” he said.
The Ontario Police Memorial Foundation posted a statement online addressing the planned protests, with the group’s president Jason Tomlinson tweeting his disappointment “that any first responder group would use the memorial site in order to further their agenda.”
“On behalf of our members, the OPMF denounces such a protest occurring at these memorial sites, which are intended to honour Ontario’s police personnel and firefighters who have made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives in the line of duty,” the statement reads.
The foundation goes on to say that it is not affiliated in any way with the group co-ordinating the protests against vaccine mandates, adding that the group “respectfully request that the organizers of this protest relocate their gathering so as to preserve the purpose and integrity of what the police and fire memorials represent within our first responder communities and for the families of those who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.”
The Toronto Police Association, meanwhile, stated in a Tweet that while they “respect the right to lawful demonstration,” hospital operations should not be disrupted. “Officers will be present and monitoring and charges will be laid where warranted,” they said.
The TPA has previously distanced itself from similar protests, which organizers have said was to campaign on behalf of police against mandatory vaccinations, telling the Star at the time that it was not involved in the protest and did not support it “in any way.”
Earlier this month, Canadian Frontline Nurses and their supporters blocked traffic in front of hospital row for hours, jeering hospital workers and carrying signs that perpetuated dangerous misinformation about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations. That same week, protesters congregated in front of Toronto Police headquarters before marching down Yonge Street.
Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon
Ivy Mak is a team editor on the Star’s breaking news desk, based in Toronto. Reach her via email: email@example.com
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