Some Liberal MPs stand with Lightbound against ‘divisive’ vaccine rhetoric

Click to play video: 'Trucker protests: Demonstrators gather at Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport'
Trucker protests: Demonstrators gather at Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport
WATCH: Trucker protests — Demonstrators gather at Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport – Feb 10, 2022

Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says he agrees with his colleague Joel Lightbound that “divisive” rhetoric about getting vaccinated has to end, even if he is not fully onside with everything the Quebec Liberal MP said.

There have been obvious divisions within the Conservative caucus for months about vaccine mandates, COVID-19 restrictions and, in the last two weeks, whether or how to support the ongoing convoy demonstration paralyzing downtown Ottawa and now blocking multiple border crossings.

But some divisions are now emerging within the Liberal caucus and some MPs are calling for a shift in tone and direction from the government.

Lightbound, a Quebec City MP who spent the four years before the last election as a parliamentary secretary in health, finance and public safety, publicly chastised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Tuesday for politicizing the pandemic and mandating vaccines in a bid to win votes from Canadians during the last election.

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Erskine-Smith said in an interview he too was worried about “tone and rhetoric” coming from the government that appeared to lump together everyone with doubts about mandates or vaccines.

“We don’t have to vilify those who disagree with us on that front,” he said. “And nor should people vilify people who are supportive of mandates.”

“There are many people with legitimate questions and concerns and even where we disagree and (think they) may be misinformed I think we need to meet folks with compassion wherever possible.”

Click to play video: 'Trucker protests: Aerial footage of protest causing delays on Ambassador Bridge'
Trucker protests: Aerial footage of protest causing delays on Ambassador Bridge

The convoy occupying Ottawa and barricading borders is a complex group, with some there solely to protest against government restrictions and vaccine mandates they deem as a fundamental affront to civil liberties. But others have more nefarious purposes, including those displaying white supremacist symbols, and some of the lead organizers are calling for the democratically elected government to be overthrown.

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Trudeau has refused to negotiate with anyone involved, and in the lead-up to the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa said they were “a fringe minority with unacceptable views.”

He and most of his cabinet have repeatedly said the only way forward is for people to get vaccinated to save both their lives and the lives of others, and insisted the vast majority of Canadians got vaccinated and clearly agree.

Lightbound expressed disgust at the displays of hatred and racism among the protesters on Parliament Hill but said he would not demonize all of them for wanting what more and more Canadians do: a more balanced approach to responding to COVID-19 that doesn’t involve lockdowns and business and school closures that challenge both mental health and economic prosperity.

Erskine-Smith said he thought Lightbound had confused what restrictions the federal government was responsible for — decisions on closing businesses and schools, limits on public gatherings, mask mandates and vaccine passports for most daily activities including sporting events, concerts or eating in restaurants all fall to the provinces.

Ottawa is in charge only of vaccine mandates and COVID-19 testing requirements at the border, and vaccine mandates for federally regulated industries. Those are things Erskine-Smith said do need to be re-evaluated, but that those conversations have to be divorced from the “lawlessness” happening outside Parliament.

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“We don’t cater to mob rule, we listen to public health experts,” he said. “The blockades have certainly made it harder to have a rational conversation and in some cases address restrictions.”

Click to play video: 'Conservative’s Bergen urges trucker convoy to “Take down the barricades”'
Conservative’s Bergen urges trucker convoy to “Take down the barricades”

Thunder Bay Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski said the same thing Wednesday and Toronto Liberal John McKay agreed.

“You have to be thinking about what can be done to ease people’s lives,” he said.

“The risk analysis should be done by people who know what they are talking about: not politicians, not truckers, not Nazi-flag-waving nutters, but epidemiologists.”

On Wednesday, fellow Quebec Liberal MP Yves Robillard told The Hill Times he agreed with everything Lightbound said and that he was not alone. Robillard has not responded to a request for an interview from The Canadian Press.

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Several Liberals are however of the mind that Lightbound is making things worse by speaking out, confusing Canadians about evidence and restrictions, and providing fodder to the Conservatives and the protesters outside.

“It’s not good timing,” Seniors Minister Kamal Khera said Wednesday. “I don’t agree with the way he went about it.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said the disagreements should have been kept within the caucus.

“Everyone is entitled to their views and when it’s a team sport it’s something you do in private,” said Miller. “He had expressed those views within caucus but to go out there and say that, that is something that we will discuss in private in caucus and afford him the respect that perhaps wasn’t accorded to us.”

On Thursday, Erskine-Smith said on Twitter that he also thought the timing of Lightbound’s remarks “was particularly challenging,” given what is happening in Ottawa and elsewhere.

“The law should be enforced immediately, and we should not embolden further attacks on the rule of law,” he wrote.

Click to play video: 'Trucker protest organizers’ intentions remain unclear as occupation drags on'
Trucker protest organizers’ intentions remain unclear as occupation drags on

Winnipeg Liberal Jim Carr, a former cabinet minister, said he is confident “caucus is solid” regardless of the events of this week. But Carr said he is getting “tons of calls” from constituents about the protests, which expanded to Winnipeg last weekend.

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“People are very emotional about it,” he said. “They just want it to end.”

Many Canadians are expressing frustration at the lack of a clear plan from any level of government to end the protests. On Monday, the city of Ottawa pointed fingers at the federal government, the provincial government pointed fingers at the city of Ottawa and the federal government pointed fingers at the province.

Carr said that has to stop.

“People aren’t fixated on jurisdiction,” he said. “They want a peaceful resolution.”

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