On Wednesday, Alberta premier Danielle Smith released a statement regarding comments she made a day earlier about people who chose not to be vaccinated being “the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.”
The comment garnered widespread criticism online and from other political figures in Canada.
In a statement issued just before noon on Wednesday, Smith addressed the concerns, but didn’t back down from her comments.
“Yesterday, I made comments regarding the discrimination unvaccinated individuals have suffered through over during the past two years. My intention was to underline the mistreatment of individuals who chose not to be vaccinated and were punished by not being able to work, travel or, in some cases, see loved ones.
“I want to be clear that I did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups both here in Canada and around the world or to create any false equivalencies to the terrible historical discrimination and persecution suffered by so many minority groups over the last decades and centuries.
“We need to actively work together as Albertans and Canadians to end all discrimination against all minority communities,” Smith said.
“I am committed to listening, learning and addressing the issues affecting minority communities. Over the next few days, my office will be reaching out to set up meetings with minority community stakeholders so I can better understand the different concerns of their individual communities,” the statement concluded.
In an interview with CFAX Radio in Victoria, B.C. Premier John Horgan called Smith’s comments “laughable.”
“We, collectively, not just British Columbians and Canadians, but the global community has just gone through an unprecedented time, nothing like this in over 100 years, going back to the Spanish influenza. And, on top of that, we have a toxic drug supply that’s killing our brothers and sisters, our friends and our neighbours. At the same time, we’re running out of people to provide the services,” Horgan said.
“These are critical times and for the incoming premier to focus on a sliver of the population who chose not to get vaccinated when there’s all these other challenges seems shortsighted to me.”
He also said he disagrees with Smith.
“I believe the vast majority of Canadians understood that we had a collective responsibly.”
Alberta Health data shows more than 82 per cent of the province’s total population has received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 78 per cent of the population has two doses.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Smith’s comment would be laughable if she weren’t the premier.
“This shows what drove her campaign and who her supporters are,” he said.
Bratt said Smith’s comment is offensive because there has been a lot of discrimination in the past 50-plus years.
Bratt said race, religion, sexual orientation and disabilities are not choices.
“Those are things that you have and that’s why we don’t allow discrimination based on that,” he said. “Deciding not to be vaccinated is a choice that people make.”
2SLGBTQ+ advocate Kristopher Wells said Smith’s remarks on Tuesday were disappointing.
“They were uninformed and what many considered to be disingenuous and trivialize the history of discrimination and the lived experiences of many minority communities here in Alberta.”
Wells is associate professor and Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth at MacEwan University.
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“We are coming to the 25th anniversary of the Delwin Vriend decision. And for those people who don’t remember, that’s when the Supreme Court of Canada read sexual orientation into Alberta’s human rights statute.
“We were the last province or territory in Canada to grant basic human rights protections on the grounds of sexual orientation. So it was a very dangerous time. People could be fired from their jobs, denied housing or service for no other reason than their sexual orientation.”
He added that Smith’s discrimination comments aren’t helpful for those who face the impacts of discrimination on a daily basis.
“Being unvaccinated is a choice. Being part of the Black community or the Jewish community or the 2SLGBTQ+ community is not a choice,” Wells said.
“To make these comparisons is completely off base, misinformed, disingenuous at best, and does harm and damage.”
Wells said as premier of Alberta, Smith’s words matter and she will be under the microscope leading up to the provincial election in spring 2023.
“We need a premier that is going to represent our province well and make evidence-based decisions and and not govern like a talk show host.
“And where decisions and statements are made based on opinions rather than facts, then I think that’s probably concerning to many people,” Wells said.
“She represents all Albertans and needs to govern accordingly.”
Some local groups also expressed concerns about Smith’s comments.
“We have reached out to the premier’s office to express our concerns surrounding these comments and are keen on meeting with the premier to discuss antisemitism, discrimination in our community and others in Alberta, the need for mandatory Holocaust education, and the story of Alberta’s Jewish community,” wrote Jewish Edmonton.
Alex Montiel, the CEO of Diversecities, a community organization that works with marginalized groups in Calgary, said he hopes Smith reflects on what she said.
“We understand that being unable to retain or find a job, having restricted mobility across the country, or not being allowed to enter a public gathering based on a medical choice can be considered discrimination,” Montiel said in a statement.
“However, this is incomparable to the uncountable cases of people who have been verbally and physically assaulted in the street while walking with their children, demanding them to return to where they belong because they are of Asian descent.”
In her first news conference as Alberta premier, Smith said Tuesday her goals for the next seven months include reforming Alberta Health Services, the Alberta sovereignty act, health spending accounts, more educational assistance in the classroom and changing the human rights act so that vaccine choice is a protected category.
When asked by a reporter Tuesday how she sees vaccine choice as equal to other protected grounds like race, gender and sexuality, Smith paused before replying.
“I guess the way I look at it is that the community that faced the most restrictions on their freedoms in the last year were those who made a choice not to be vaccinated,” Smith said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a situation in my lifetime where a person was fired from their job, or not allowed to watch their kids play hockey, or not allowed to go visit a loved one in long-term care or hospital, or not allowed to get on a plane to either go across the country to see family or even travel across the border.
“They have been the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. That’s a pretty extreme level of discrimination that we’ve seen.
“I don’t take away any of the discrimination that I’ve seen in those other groups that you mentioned,” Smith added, “but this has been an extraordinary time in the last year in particular and I want people to know that I find that unacceptable.
“We are not going to create a segregated society on the basis of a medical choice,” Alberta’s new premier stated.
Smith said she wants coronavirus to be approached like influenza.
“Vaccination really is for self-protection in this case because you have to make your own choice about what your own medical status is in conjunction with your own doctor and your own preexisting medical conditions. And we have to stop trying to victimize a particular group because they made a different choice,” she said during Tuesday’s news conference.
“I know that that’s going to be a little challenging for some people who’ve been holding a different view for a long period of time but if I need to make the point that this kind of discrimination is unacceptable, the best way to do it is changing the human rights act.”
Currently, Alberta’s human rights act provides protection from discrimination due to race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status and sexual orientation.
Alberta’s Opposition NDP called for an apology from Smith on Tuesday.
Justice Critic Irfan Sabir said hate-motivated crimes are on the rise in Alberta.
“The UCP has refused to take any meaningful steps towards reconciliation, refused to take real action to address racism in Alberta, and is the only government in history to rollback 2SLGTBQIA+ rights.
“The comments made by Premier Danielle Smith further divide our province and minimize the hate and violence towards racialized Albertans and the 2SLGTBQIA+ community.”
— With files from The Canadian Press