A small crowd gathered outside The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus Monday afternoon as part of a national day of protest at health-care institutions across the country.
The demonstrations, put on by a group calling itself Canadian Frontline Nurses, were said to be “silent vigils” in protest of restrictive COVID-19 measures and in favour of “health freedom.”
Roughly two dozen people gathered peacefully across the street from the Civic campus on Carling Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. A few passing cars honked at the demonstrators, who waved signs with messages such as “my body, my choice” in protest of vaccination mandates.
The turnout was lower than demonstrations held in Toronto on Monday and was more muted than recent protests in Kingston and in B.C., where health-care workers and patients have been confronted as they were entering or exiting the hospitals.
The Ottawa Hospital told Global News it had beefed up its security presence Monday to ensure patient care was not affected by the demonstrations. Ottawa police were on scene as well, with a spokesperson saying “any disruption to hospital operations is unacceptable.”
“Those demonstrating outside of the hospital are putting not only staff and physicians at risk, but also the hundreds of patients who come to the hospital for care every day,” a hospital spokesperson said.
Recent protests have centred on the issue of vaccination mandates and certificates to access non-essential businesses. The Ottawa Hospital is among local health-care institutions that have mandated full vaccinations for all staff.
“While we respect everyone’s right to free speech, we disagree with the position that these demonstrators have taken. We encourage everyone to get vaccinated, as it is the best form of protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19,” the Ottawa hospital spokesperson said.
The Ottawa Hospital has recently encountered privacy concerns related to its vaccination mandate, however.
As first reported by CTV Ottawa, an email was sent to all unvaccinated staff at the hospital this past week revealing the names of other employees who had not received the shot.
The Ottawa Hospital’s spokesperson confirmed to Global News on Monday afternoon that an email blast had been sent out inviting unvaccinated staff to participate in an education session with the staff names visible to other recipients.
“The email was immediately recalled and all copies were deleted. An apology and explanation was sent to the staff members affected. TOH’s Information and Privacy Office investigated the matter and reported it to the Information and Privacy Commissioner,” the hospital spokesperson said.
“The Ottawa Hospital expects every member of our organization to receive the vaccine, as it is an important step to ensuring the safety of everyone in our community. Educating our unvaccinated staff is an important step in that journey. Health-care workers have worked tirelessly to protect our communities throughout the pandemic, and they deserve protection and support to enable them to do their jobs safely, and to the best of their abilities,” the statement concluded.
Political backlash against protests
The day of protest has been condemned by the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, the Ontario Medical Association, Premier Doug Ford and other elected officials and health-care professionals.
Federal party leaders on the campaign trail Monday roundly denounced the protests, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau saying the party would go as far as criminalizing the act of blocking hospital access if re-elected.
In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson on Sunday afternoon asked in a tweet that protesters not disrupt health-care staff at Civic campus.
“As Canadians, we have the right to express our beliefs. However, when these protests get in the way of the critical work of our healthcare professionals during a pandemic, I won’t have it,” he said in a tweet.
Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, who took leave from city council earlier this term while she received treatment for cancer, reminded demonstrators on Twitter that the care of patients should be paramount, and that “there are other places to protest.”
Councillors Catherine McKenney, Shawn Menard and Jeff Leiper wrote a joint letter to Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s head of emergency services, over the weekend to ask for the city to use any tools possible to create a buffer zone between the hospital and protesters to avoid any disruption on Monday.
Global News reached out to the city to hear whether any such measures are being put in place, but was told police will be managing all security operations for the protest.
McKenney joined Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden at the Civic on Monday to vocally support health-care workers in opposition to the planned protest.
The Ottawa Hospital’s spokesperson added in a statement that the best way to support health workers through the fourth wave of the pandemic is to get vaccinated.
“Hospitals have received tremendous community support throughout the pandemic; from food and coffee, to wonderful signs and messages. Now, the community can show their support for health-care workers by getting vaccinated. It helps protect our health-care system from being overwhelmed, and ensures that health-care workers care can continue to care for those most in need.”
— With files from The Canadian Press