London Mayor Ed Holder slammed those gathering outside of Canadian hospitals to protest COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates, describing them on Monday as “mindless mobs” who are harassing health-care workers.
“It’s an absolutely disgraceful development and one I condemn in the strongest possible terms. Our health-care heroes are stressed enough already, which is to say nothing of the innocent, vulnerable patients who are just seeking comfort and treatment,” Holder said during a virtual pandemic media briefing.
“I say to those mindless mobs: how dare you? Leave our health professionals alone, because harassing them accomplishes nothing.”
Holder made the comments as dozens of people began to descend on the northeast corner of Commissioners and Wellington roads, just outside of London Health Sciences Centre, to protest vaccine mandates and other public health restrictions implemented during the pandemic.
Roughly 200 people were estimated to be in attendance, waving placards and soliciting honks of support from passing motorists. A similar protest was held outside of the hospital a week ago.
Other demonstrations were scheduled to take place across the country, including outside McGill University Health Centre, Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, and the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg.
Dozens gathered outside Toronto General Hospital, many to condemn Ontario’s proof-of-vaccination system that is scheduled to take effect next week.
The demonstrations were organized by a group calling itself Canadian Frontline Nurses, who promoted them as “silent vigils.”
The group said they wanted to take a stand against what they called “tyrannical measures and government overreach,” adding that they were not encouraging nurses to walk out on their shifts or abandon patients.
“I spoke with members of the London Police Service who assured me they will be on site at LHSC to monitor activity and enforce the law while ensuring staff and patients will not have their movements impeded nor delayed,” Holder said during the 2 p.m. briefing.
“The ultimate irony is when members of this ignorant mob inevitably become sick with COVID … it’s the people they are harassing … who will treat them with kindness and compassion and professionalism. It’d be nice if those courtesies were a two-way street.”
In a statement prior to the demonstration, London Health Sciences Centre confirmed there would be enhanced security in response.
“While this is being promoted by the organizers as a ‘Silent Vigil’, we cannot ignore how vocal the past protest was and the negativity directed at our healthcare providers,” the statement read.
“While we respect the right to free speech, our patients and staff have an equal right to seek and provide health care without harassment. We kindly remind protesters to keep a respectful distance and not to trespass on hospital property.”
The protest comes two weeks after LHSC announced it would implement a mandatory vaccination policy for physicians, staff, volunteers, learners, contractors and cross-appointed personnel. All impacted are required to complete their vaccination regimen and the two-week waiting period no later than Oct. 22.
Those who fail to comply will face discipline up to and including termination, according to LHSC’s interim president and CEO, Dr. Jackie Schleifer Taylor.
The organization has said it will not accept frequent testing as an alternative to vaccination past Oct. 22, unless the staff member has an exemption.
The group at the centre of the demonstrations, Canadian Frontline Nurses, has a notable local connection. Among its lead organizers is Kristen Nagle, who up until January had been employed as a registered nurse in LHSC’s neonatal intensive care unit.
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Nagle was among those present at Monday’s London demonstration, as was Henry Hildebrant, the pastor of Aylmer’s Church of God, who has become a prominent critic of pandemic restrictions.
“Definitely by no means are we here to interfere with hospital access or impede any health or any kind of treatments going on,” Nagle told 980 CFPL.
“But we are in a very drastic time right now and we are not being listened to,” she said, adding they have written letters, made phone calls and shown up at city hall and other government buildings to call out vaccine mandates like that imposed by LHSC in which workers face possible termination for not getting the shot.
“It seems like by going in front of the hospitals is a place where … we are finally being noticed. Unfortunately, it is being spun very negatively against us, and what we’re standing for is absolutely being missed.”
Nagle has been a regular presence at anti-lockdown and anti-restrictions rallies since the fall.
In January, LHSC confirmed it had placed Nagle on unpaid leave after the organization learned of actions involving her “that were not aligned with LHSC’s values.”
LHSC wouldn’t say what prompted Nagle to be placed on unpaid leave, and when the leave was enacted. Following an internal investigation, LHSC announced on Jan. 18 that it had terminated Nagle with cause. No further information was released.
Two weeks before she was let go by LHSC, Nagle and another Canadian nurse, Sarah Choujounian, attended and spoke at an anti-lockdown rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the same day supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol.
An online petition in support of Nagle later stated that she was not a part of the Capitol incident, and was in D.C. for a summit outside of the U.S. Supreme Court by the group Global Frontline Nurses, of which Nagle and Choujounian are both listed as founding members.
On Nov. 22, 2020, Nagle was handed two charges under the Reopening Ontario Act, including one charge relating to the hosting of a public event where attendance exceeded outdoor limits. The date coincides with an anti-lockdown rally held in Victoria Park. Two others were also charged.
As of Monday, Nagle is still listed in the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) database as being entitled to practise with no restrictions. The CNO confirmed to Global News earlier this year that it was investigating Nagle, but could not provide any further information.
In a brief statement Monday, CNO reiterated that it was investigating Nagle, but added that “legislation does not permit us to provide details on the progress or ongoing status of the investigations.”
The planned nationwide hospital protests have drawn sharp criticism from health-care associations and from politicians at all levels.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and Ontario Medical Association issued a joint statement “strongly condemning” the planned disruptions and called for designated safe zones around health-care facilities to protect staff and patients — a proposal the province’s New Democrats have also floated.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned the protests in a tweet Sunday, describing those taking part as “selfish, cowardly and reckless,” while Christine Elliott, the province’s health minister, tweeted that she was “extremely disappointed to see our hospitals & staff being the target of protests after all of their sacrifice during the pandemic.”
Both the federal New Democrats and Liberals made mirror pledges Monday to criminalize protesters who block hospitals or harass health-care workers.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party would make it a federal offence to harass or obstruct someone from accessing medical care.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the demonstrations “totally unacceptable.”
“We all owe a huge debt of thanks to our front lines,” he said. “We have to work together at a time of crisis to fight COVID-19 together.”
Liberal Leader Trudeau said there was a need to protect doctors and nurses in a similar way to how people in the justice system are protected from intimidation.
“It’s not OK any day to know that a nurse going into a late shift crossing a parking lot might be afraid that there could be someone there to spit on her or shout obscenities at her,” Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver.
Anti-vaccine and anti-mask protesters have dogged Trudeau along the campaign trail, even pelting him with gravel during a stop in London, after he promised to forge ahead with mandatory vaccination rules for travellers.
Shane Marshall, 25, of St. Thomas faces a charge of assault with a weapon in the gravel-throwing incident. Marshall was turfed by the People’s Party of Canada as president of its Elgin-Middlesex-London riding association.
—With files from Andrew Graham, Scott Monich and The Canadian Press