In the hours before demonstrators gathered outside at least one hospital in downtown Toronto to protest COVID-19 vaccines, hundreds of emergency services workers held a separate, silent demonstration against inoculation mandates on the front lawn of Queen’s Park.
“I am not going to stand here and talk about science because I’m not a scientist, I’m not a politician, I’m just an average Canadian that is a first responder,” Michael Spadafora, who identified himself as an emergency services worker for the City of Toronto, told Global News Monday afternoon.
Spadafora was one of those who stood in a formation on the south lawn of the Ontario legislature at around lunchtime. Except for the odd vehicle horn or supporters having the occasional conversation or recording a social media video, the sound of a news helicopter filled the grounds of Queen’s Park during the demonstration for several minutes.
For nearly an hour the group mostly stood in silence, holding signs with phrases such as, “Frontline for freedom of choice,” “First responders for no mandate,” and “Toronto stands with Calgary” (first responders in that city held protests over vaccine mandates).
According to a banner being held by a couple of participants, it said they were a part of an organization called Police on Guard — a group strongly against government COVID-19 lockdowns and certain other public health-related actions — and that the group is made up of “active and retired police officers who have assembled for truth and justice for all members.”
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“There are all kinds of laws that stipulate the right to your medical choices and privacy surrounding that,” Chris VandenBos told Global News, adding he is an active-duty officer.
He is one of several active and retired officers who filed a court challenge over COVID-19 orders.
While the group of workers stood in silence, a smaller group of people stood in front to show their support. At times during the demonstration, cards were circulated among those watching, asking if they will “stand” with police. Another card said, “When tyranny becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” It wasn’t clear if the smaller group was formally affiliated with the group of first responders.
While physical distancing appeared to be observed at certain times, many of those in attendance at Queen’s Park within six feet of each other weren’t seen wearing face coverings.
The exact breakdown of what emergency services the workers are employed with, as well as those who are active or retired, wasn’t available.
Toronto Police Service personnel were previously given until the end of Monday to provide proof they were fully vaccinated. A spokesperson said management in the service would take some time after Monday’s deadline to review how many were vaccinated as they work to develop policies for those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
City of Toronto personnel have until Friday to provide proof of their vaccination status while Toronto Transit Commission employees have until Sept. 20.
Speaking after the demonstration, Spadafora insisted he and others in the group of first responders were at Queen’s Park to call for being given the freedom of choice and to protect the rights of everyone.
He said after starting a small support group for people who were concerned about vaccine mandates, he’s heard from colleagues who have been “harassed and victimized” — noting some have expressed thoughts “on the edge of suicide.”
“What they want to do is victimize us by calling us anti-vaxxers or whatnot, or conspiracy theorists, we are not because any one of us will do what we can to protect your life. And this whole time we have been working since day one during this pandemic,” he said, adding he’s not a COVID-19 “denier.”
“Personally people have told me that I’m going to kill people, and I was saving people’s lives a year ago and we were the heroes.”
Separate protest held on Toronto’s ‘hospital row’
Meanwhile, a short distance away from Queen’s Park dozens attended a separate demonstration against COVID-19-related measures outside of Toronto General Hospital Monday afternoon with many of them condemning Ontario’s proof-of-vaccination system, which is scheduled to take effect next week.
Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said the event “feels like a moral gut-punch” for those in a health-care system already grappling with burnout due to the pandemic.
“To block and intimidate people coming in for care, it just hits heavy at times,” Boozary said.
“I think we just have to remind ourselves this is a very small, vocal minority.”
Some high-ranking Ontario politicians and prominent health-care organizations have also issued warnings regarding the events.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose province was among those targeted by similar past protests after he announced plans for a proof-of-vaccine system, condemned the latest round on Sunday in a tweet describing such events as “selfish, cowardly and reckless.”
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and Ontario Medical Association issued a joint statement “strongly condemning” the planned disruptions and calling for designated safe zones around health-care facilities to protect staff and patients — a proposal the province’s New Democrats have also floated.
“Nurses, doctors and other health-care workers have been working around the clock on the front lines of the pandemic for 18 months helping to keep our communities safe,” Sunday’s joint statement said.
“These COVID-19 heroes need the resources and supports to continue the battle — now in the thick of a fourth wave. They cannot and must not be distracted, or worse, discouraged by protests at the doorsteps of their workplaces.”
In an update posted on a Toronto police Twitter account Monday afternoon, the service reported not receiving reports of anyone being obstructed, adding officers were in the area to monitor the demonstration and that “charges will be laid where warranted.”
In Ontario, the province is dealing with a fourth wave of COVID-19 — a wave that has seen the majority of cases in unvaccinated residents and one that has been fuelled by more transmissible variants.
To date, 9,617 have died after contracting COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 575,219 confirmed virus cases and 559,386 people have had their cases deemed “resolved.”
The most recent Ontario government data on hospitalizations, which is incomplete due to delays in weekend reporting, showed 42 people in general hospital wards were fully vaccinated while 171 were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. For those in ICUs, 15 were fully vaccinated while 111 were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
The government reported as of late Sunday, 84.39 per cent of Ontario residents 12 and older have received at least one of the two COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses while 78.07 per cent received two doses.
— With files from The Canadian Press