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Tom Mulcair: Justin Trudeau is starting to apply the Macron formula


As Canadians enter the third year of the pandemic, our fragile health system is beginning to buckle under the weight of the unvaccinated.

People who have chosen to refuse a free, effective vaccine are getting sick in record numbers with the Omicron variant and our overcrowded hospitals are unable to cope.

As a direct consequence, Canadians with serious diseases like cancer are being denied treatment. Some will die needlessly as a result. Their numbers just won’t appear in the official statistics as victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Against this backdrop, two strange political statements made their way onto the front pages in the past few days.

At a news conference, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos mused about obligatory vaccinations being the way of the future, while at the same time trying to say it’s his personal opinion.

Sorry, when you’re the national health minister of a country trying to get through a pandemic, you don’t get to have personal opinions on something as crucial as obliging people to get vaccinated. You’re expressing the view of the government.

Simultaneously, Erin O’Toole decided to take up the defence of the anti-vaxxers. It was surreal. O’Toole had mostly managed to sidestep the trap Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had set for him on this issue during the recent campaign. Now, he seemed determined to jump into it with both feet.

O’Toole has been walking a fine line. He wants to send a knowing wink to the anti-vax/anti-mask crowd, that’s well represented in his base and in his Caucus. He also needs to be reassuring to ordinary Canadians who’ve followed the rules throughout the pandemic, gotten vaccinated and are in no mood to mollycoddle the irresponsible.

O’Toole wants to get the conspiracy theorists back into the Conservative fold after losing a large number of them to the Anti-Vaxxer-in-Chief, Maxime Bernier. The reward for his efforts may be the loss of support amongst mainstream Conservatives who, like the vast majority of other Canadians, simply want everything possible to be done to bring this pandemic to an end.

The contrast between Trudeau’s health minister and Conservative Leader O’Toole couldn’t be sharper. It also makes it abundantly clear that politics is still playing a key role in the management of what should exclusively be a health issue.

Duclos is too smart and experienced not to know that obligatory vaccination is a non-starter. You’d have to be able to enforce it. With what resources? The Army?

Duclos was simply redrawing the ideological line in the sand with their principal opponent. His subtext: we’re willing to do everything that we can to end this thing, O’Toole would make it worse.

Premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe have come out forcefully against Duclos, Premiers Doug Ford and Blaine Higgs appear more nuanced but the subject was not dealt with during Monday’s premiers’ conference with Trudeau.

O’Toole seems more than happy to join that battle but his full-throated defence of the anti-vaxxers feels contrived. A counterpoint meant to draw some attention while taking a poke at Trudeau. It’s fallen terribly flat and he has a very tiny window of opportunity to re-calibrate.

There’s nothing more important for a political leader than the public’s perception of you. It’s not something you get to change with a black T-shirt. If people feel that you’re irresponsible, that their protection is not your number one concern, that sticks. O’Toole is not irresponsible. He’s just playing a reckless game and he’ll wind up paying a huge price for it in terms of his own credibility.

Appearing to say that not getting vaccinated is no big problem, is putting O’Toole at odds with 90% of the Canadian population.

Even folks who are vaccine-hesitant will usually do the right thing for their loved ones, their friends and their co-workers. If they’re not convinced it’s good for them, many accept to get vaccinated, knowing that increasing their own immunity will mean that they have less likelihood of contaminating someone else.

There is a harder core of anti-vaxxers and outright conspiracy theorists who won’t do the right thing, even if they know that could harm others. It should come as no surprise, then, that the only thing that appears to be working with people who only think about themselves, is to threaten to take something away from them.

It was a real eye-opener when Quebec Premier Francois Legault decided to bar the unvaccinated from liquor stores and marijauna dispensaries. Thousands went running for their first dose!

Although his salty choice of terms landed him in hot water, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who proposed the best approach. He said that he really wanted to tick-off the anti-vaxxers (his scatological term “emmerder”, literally means that he wished to cover anti-vaxxers in excrement which, if nothing else, is certainly a good way to make them stand out in a crowd!).

What Macron meant was, take away their privileges. He wasn’t talking about forced inoculation. He knows that won’t work. Macron was saying that if you want to do anything in the society that you’re part of, you’ll have to prove that you’ve done what’s necessary to protect yourself and others.

Want to wait this thing out, unvaccinated, in your basement? Go ahead. Want to go have a glass of wine at your local bistro? Forget about it, if you don’t have your vaccine passport.

Within his areas of jurisdiction, Justin Trudeau is starting to apply the Macron formula. When trucking companies started whining that they already had too few drivers and that Canada shouldn’t be checking to see if those crossing the border are vaccinated, Trudeau told them to take a hike. Get vaccinated or you and your 18-wheeled vector can stay out. Good for him!

It’s hard to believe that we’re entering our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tolerance of restrictions has now been stretched as thin as the resources of our healthcare system. Governments would do well to read the mood and not hesitate to use every tool at their disposal to protect the public.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017.



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