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By throwing their weight behind vaccine mandates, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada have picked a strange hill to die on in the run to Canada’s snap election next week.
The Liberal support of vaccine mandates represent a 180 degree turn away from what had been their staunch defence of individual autonomy for the last two generations, reaching back at least to the institution of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms introduced by the Liberal government led by our Prime Minister’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Two culturally divisive issues stand out in the Liberal and liberal support of individual autonomy as a touchstone of their vision for Canada’s future: abortion and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD).
While abortion is not technically a right, it is legal in Canada. In 1989, The Supreme Court of Canada found that prospective fathers have no interest in the foetus that would interfere with a woman’s right to control her body, and that the rights of the unborn child do not begin until after birth. A pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy became absolute.
The only thing standing in the way of total victory for the liberal position on abortion is ease of access. To give a sense of the finely tuned machine that is the abortion industry, in my home province of Nova Scotia there has been no interruption of abortion services during the pandemic when many other normal or even vital services and areas of care or treatment were cancelled, delayed, or simply neglected.
For a potted history of MAiD, we can go back a bit further to 1972 when suicide and attempted suicide were decriminalized, while assisted suicide remained illegal. When the Charter was introduced, it was only a matter of time before the reasoning that informed a Supreme Court minority opinion (5-4) in 1993 was made law. In that decision, the minority judges pointed out that it was arbitrary to discriminate against a disabled person who sought help to carry out the same act it was legal for a physically able person to undertake alone. To complete the thought: if a suicidal person can seek help, they wondered, shouldn’t said help be that of a qualified physician?
In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada accepted the logic of liberty over life, and ruled unanimously (9-0) to strike down legal provisions against assisted suicide. Like abortion, the only remaining barrier to medical aid in dying were safeguards at which MAID advocates have been slowly chipping away with the help of the courts.
A Superior Court of Quebec Justice’s decision in 2019 agreed with plaintiffs that the precondition that a candidate’s natural death be ‘reasonably foreseeable’ was unconstitutional, again citing section 7 of the Charter. MAiD for the mentally ill, postponed due to Corona, will be revisited by Parliament in 2023. More likely than not, the question under a Liberal government will not be whether, but how.
The trump of individual autonomy over and against all other considerations seems only to be picking up steam in liberal circles. This invites the question: Why have Liberals and their liberal cheerleaders suddenly reversed course by introducing vaccine passports that effectively relegate those who would adhere to the ‘my body, my choice’ mantra, which has informed liberal thinking for decades, to the status of second-class citizenship?
With respect to bodily autonomy, hitherto we had been educated by liberals to believe that all choices related to ‘life, liberty, and security of person’ are equal and sacrosanct. The guiding ethos of the liberal project in Canada has been to remove social stigma from choices taken by a minority of the population, especially choices of which the majority might not approve. The vaccine mandates and the public and private shaming programme that has followed from them is without precedent in modern Canadian history. This is not the work of reactionary conservatives, but of liberals.
You still have a choice, our PM concedes, ‘but there will be consequences,’ if it’s not the right one.
Liberals now seem to be arguing that the autonomy of the individual is negotiable and limited where the greater good is concerned. No such arguments were made on the liberal side of the aisle when they advanced and supported the abortion and MAiD agendas. When it came to these progressive causes, individual autonomy was the greater good.
During the pandemic, the declaration of an emergency has allowed the federal and provincial governments, and unelected public health officials whose advice they follow, to run roughshod over individual autonomy that was until recently held up as inviolable.
But if emergencies justify the suspension of Charter Rights, what is stopping a government from declaring an emergency to suspend them? Who is to say this is not exactly what’s happening before our very eyes in this protracted season of Coronatide?
As of Sept.16, deaths in connection with Corona for the past seven days are at 0.00191 per 100,000 in Canada. Our vaccination rate is apparently through the roof. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that naturally acquired immunity to the virus offers significantly better protection than the vaccine, opening up an important and indeed urgent frontier for research. In practice and in principle, this welcome news should render the mandates null and void.
If this weren’t already enough to demonstrate their superfluity, leading pro COVID vaccine epidemiologists such as Harvard Professor Martin Kulldorff have pointed out that vaccine mandates stand in direct contravention to the basis on which the practice of public health is built. That basis is trust. Coercive mandates simultaneously undermine the trustworthiness of those who impose them as well those on whom they are imposed. The logic is inescapable: mandates lock both parties in a dance of mutual and perpetual suspicion.
The rhetoric of mandate champions such as Prime Minister Trudeau, who only recently got religion on the question, is and must be threatening. American President Biden’s recent speech, in which he said 'our patience is wearing thin' with the unvaccinated may be frightening, but it follows naturally from the mandate logic he and other world leaders like Canada’s Prime Minister have whole-heartedly embraced. Second-class citizenship or worse becomes a matter of course.
Here is where things become particularly fraught. It is not only the unvaccinated who are diminished by the mandates. The mandates also require the participation of the vaccinated.
All Canadian citizens will become second-class citizens. Every time you go out anywhere, they will haunt you: What if you forgot your pass? What about children? What if the 18-year-old at the gym desk doesn’t accept it? The cohort of mini-inspectors that will grow up in the wake of vaccine passports is potentially legion. So, too, is the potential for overreach. Consider recent developments in the UK where teenagers, notoriously susceptible to peer pressure, will be permitted to take the vaccine against the wishes of their parents. What fresh Hell is next?
Since these mandates are discriminatory as a matter of principle, it follows that they will be discriminatory in other ways in their application. We are already seeing this in the double standards being applied in the universities. At my alma mater, Dalhousie University, those unwilling or unable to produce proof of vaccination must submit to regular testing from which the vaccinated are exempt. A logical and non-discriminatory policy would require that all university members submit to regular testing, especially since the vaccines do not prevent the spread of the virus.
Is this an unintended consequence of what is meant to be a discrete and principled policy of discrimination? Or is something else going on?
On closer inspection, such policies begin to look at lot like a communist-style social credit system: A carrot for good behaviour for the compliant; a slap on the wrist for the recalcitrant.
More than having to endure a kind of ritualized shaming, the unvaccinated are doubly punished at institutions like Dalhousie and the University of King’s College (whose policy follows Dal’s), for they are also put at risk by the vaccinated who may spread the virus while being less likely than the unvaccinated to exhibit severe symptoms.
Usually, the rhetoric goes in the other direction. If we are to think in the divisive terms set by our Prime Minister, it is in fact the vaccinated who pose the greater threat: this is now a ‘pandemic of the vaccinated,’ to coin a phrase. After all, according to the messaging of our leadership class and media, is it not the unvaccinated who are filling up the hospitals?
Much like the deserving poor of old, the conventional wisdom is that the unvaccinated have brought this second-class treatment on themselves. If they get the short end of the stick, it’s only as much as they deserve.
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But there is a sense in which they are getting far less than they deserve. Presumably the unvaccinated as a group have largely made a conscious choice to turn down the jab, thereby tacitly accepting the threat the virus poses. If the vaccines work, what do the vaccinated have to fear? If they don’t work, why should they be mandated? The unvaccinated are not being treated like autonomous citizens, capable of making and living with their own choices, but like children who simply do not know what’s good for them and must be disciplined.
With the passports inevitably becoming an app (the convenience of which is meant to alleviate serious concerns about privacy, according to experts such as University of Manitoba ethicist Professor Arthur Schafer, whom the federal government is consulting on the question) one can imagine a litany of problems. What if your phone is broken? What if your battery dies? What if the app is down? Does the event shut down? Will the restaurant have to close if the Wi-Fi is down? What if the app is hacked? And so on.
This is not merely a brake on the liberty of the unvaccinated. It diminishes the dignity and liberty of us all. Mandates discriminate especially against racial minorities, which have lower vaccine uptake, and the poor. What if you cannot afford a phone? What if you are mentally unwell and cannot legally consent to vaccine uptake? It is a world in which healthy, poor, and racialized law-abiding citizens will have fewer rights than the convicted felon whose medical records are not made available to the prison guard whom he has scratched and spit on.
It is not only individual citizens who should worry. Unions, too, should be very concerned by this unprecedented expansion of employer power. Nothing in a contract one signs at, say, a Canadian university (many of which have very enthusiastically agreed to act as Trudeau’s mandate laboratory) requires the disclosure of medical records. Companies that have tried to mandate random alcohol testing for employees have been blocked by the Supreme Court on grounds of privacy.
In addition to the universal indignity that will follow from vaccine passports, citizens of a liberal stripe should worry about the precedent this sets for their causes célèbres. If medical treatment can be coerced in the name of the greater good, what is stopping us from compelling MAiD somewhere down the line? After all, nearly half our healthcare budget is spent on the last six months of a person’s life. An argument could be made that the greater good would be served by expanding, perhaps even coercing, access to MAiD through indirect incentives.
If you think that this is a bridge too far, consider that our PM, and more recently Ontario Premier Doug Ford, said they would not impose vaccine mandates. Trudeau is now enticing every province with federal funding of up to a billion dollars to implement mandates. Now that Ontario has joined the mandate party alongside Quebec, it will become impractical, if not heroic, for other provinces to resist, evidence of which we have seen in planned roll outs in Yukon, B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador. On Thursday, Saskatchewan joined the mandate party, and Alberta has announced it will provide printed vaccine cards but is still mulling whether to make proof of jab status compulsory.
Liberals constantly warn against electing conservative politicians with hidden agendas. Prime Minister Trudeau plays this card constantly, as he did last election cycle with Andrew Sheer, accusing him of wanting to roll back the clock on issues like abortion. By endorsing vaccine mandates, it is the Prime Minister along with the big and small ‘l’ liberals who support him that have now made this possible.
After supporting vaccine mandates, Liberals can no longer claim that they hold bodily autonomy as an inviolable right, that a person’s private medical choices are his own, choices he should be allowed to make free from coercion and ideally from shame.
Such is the brave new world this next generation of liberals has made. The question is: Will they themselves want to live in it when they come to understand what they’ve done?
My hope is vaccine mandates will collapse under the weight of absurdities that will follow from any sustained attempt to institute them. Ultimately, I predict, they will be found unconstitutional, unscientific, immoral, and fundamentally un-Canadian because they are destructive of the social fabric that once made Canada the destination of choice for so many fleeing the hardships of authoritarian regimes the world over.
Like discriminatory laws of old, the essential decency of Canadians will wake up to what we’ve let happen, recognize their fear-driven mistake, and warn posterity against travelling down this road again.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!