Editor's note, October 8: This article was edited from previous versions to better distinguish between the range of views held by those mentioned in the article on COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccination policy. For clarity, MPP Roman Baber is not “anti-vax”. Baber has been vaccinated and encourages others to get vaccinated. The headline has been updated in order to avoid any suggestion to the contrary. QP Briefing apologizes to Baber. The article has also been updated to correct the original description of Baber's proposed bill to reflect that it would prevent people from being fired from their workplaces due to vaccine mandates. We regret the error in an earlier description. The story also deleted three tweets from people who reacted to Baber's press conference with inflammatory and misinformed views.
First up was Roman Baber.
The independent MPP, who was booted from the Progressive Conservative caucus in January 2021 for his outspoken anti-lockdown views, had introduced his "jobs and jabs" bill, which would prevent employers from firing employees based on their vaccination status.
"We shouldn't force Ontarians to do anything against their will," said Baber, who is vaccinated and encourages others to also get the jab, in a video clip posted to Twitter that afternoon.
The bill, which does not have the support of any party at Queen's Park, is unlikely to pass. But it did give Baber 146,000 signatures on a petition, along with names, email addresses and postal codes of potential supporters. And that's a group — that feels passionately about Baber's anti-lockdown, anti-mandate stance — which could be helpful if Baber chooses to run for reelection.
It was just the first of four Queen's Park news items on the day from people who oppose some form of the consensus COVID-19 response at Queen's Park, a range of views that includes Baber, who opposes workplace consequences for not getting vaccinated, a former deputy speaker who refuses to get vaccinated himself, and a former PC member from eastern Ontario who was ousted before the pandemic and has now embraced some inflammatory rhetoric related to COVID-19.
Baber is one of a group of Ontario MPPs who, until very recently, held some sway around Queen's Park. Now, after COVID-related outbursts, they've found themselves on the outs with the risk-averse Ford government. Facing an election in less than a year, it's trying to turn the corner after pandemic missteps earned repeated backlash from medical experts and the Ontario public.
These booted MPPs have faced a choice. They can take their lumps, try to rejoin the party or grind out a likely doomed campaign as an independent.
Or they can lean in — and cater to voters, to varying degrees in part or in whole — who are against some public health measures, anti-vaccination and/or represent the conspiratorial fringe.
It's an approach that's worked in the United States, but has so far had limited success north of the border. That said, Maxime Bernier's People's Party tripled its vote share from 2019 by leaning hard into the same strategy.
Time will tell if it's a winning one.
After Baber, journalists heard from independent MPP Rick Nicholls, who was tossed from the PC caucus for refusing to get vaccinated.
Nicholls has said he won't seek re-election and rarely posts on social media, though he has done some interviews with far-right media since his ouster.
His appearance was a pre-emptive "I quit" before the government removed him from his deputy Speaker position (though it turns out the Tories beat him to the punch, removing him that morning. He didn't mention this in his presser).
But he also shared his view that an unvaccinated person who has tested negative "could be at greater risk sitting with the vaccinated people," because vaccinated people can still get COVID.
An unvaccinated person's risk of getting COVID and ending up in hospital or intensive care is much higher than a vaccinated person. Ontario's ICUs currently have vastly more unvaccinated people than vaccinated.
Like many who peddle vaccine misinformation, Nicholls insisted he was "not an anti-vaxxer" and simply believes in freedom of choice.
Afterward, he told reporters he felt there were "inconsistencies" and "some things that really, truly don't make sense" with COVID.
Then it was time for question period, but not before independent MPP Randy Hillier got in the mix.
The member for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston "repeatedly, knowingly, and I would submit, carelessly" refused to wear a mask in the legislature, per the rules, then alleged that his parliamentary rights were being obstructed when he was prevented from voting, Speaker Ted Arnott said.
"His conduct was reprehensible, and should not be repeated. If it is, further corrective measures may have to be taken as considered necessary and appropriate by the house," Arnott said.
While Baber and Nicholls have phrased their COVID-19 policy consensus skepticism carefully — with a focus on "personal choice" and "workers' rights" — Hillier has gone full conspiracy. After publication of this article, Baber objected to being included in this article alongside the likes of Hillier, who holds different COVID-19 policy views from his own.
Hillier is popular in hard-conspiracy circles, with 48,000 Twitter followers. He enjoys the hashtag #wearelivingalie and gained some attention recently for tweeting that bar owners who comply with public health measures are "the enemies of freedom," encouraging his followers to "bear arms" and "make ready," and that politicians who enter Queen's Park should be tarred and feathered.
Ontario MPP Randy Hillier - a prominent leader of the anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine community - suggests it may be time for an armed rebellion, tells his followers to "make ready" and suggests pouring hot tar on his fellow MPPs. pic.twitter.com/lqgQOSb6Te
— Grant LaFleche (@GrantRants) October 5, 2021
Charles McVety was up next.
The conservative preacher has called Islam a "war machine," and his show was taken off the air after he made hateful comments about the LGBT community. He's also a longtime friend of the Ford family, and supported Premier Doug Ford's leadership run.
But the good times appear to be over.
"The premier no longer answers my phone calls, let me put it that way," he said on Tuesday, in a media studio presser sponsored by Nicholls.
McVety was there in part to allege that the government has sold out to big pharma. His evidence: key Ford adviser Kory Tenycke's lobbying firm Rubicon does work for AstraZeneca and a company that represents pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer.
"I do know the result is Pfizer and AstraZeneca have made, I don't know, hundreds of millions of dollars in Ontario," he said.
McVety is vaccinated. He told QP Briefing he went to Florida to get his shot before he was eligible in Canada, but believes people shouldn't be fired for exercising their choices.
He aired a lot of other grievances with the Ford government before his presser went off the rails. You can read about it all here.
The NDP and Liberals are trying to push the government to do more to counteract the COVID-19 policy resistance, from people who oppose vaccine mandates to the hardline anti-vax movement.
Both parties have introduced private member's bills that would create protest-free zones around businesses, schools and hospitals. Many people have harassed health-care workers and front-line staff attempting to do their jobs. Things have occasionally gotten violent.
"Literally, cancer patients trying to get into a hospital are being verbally abused and harassed by these anti-public health, anti-vax protesters," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.
The government has so far let cops deal with issues when they crop up.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said Ontario has seen "limited protest" and that protesters have not blocked access to hospitals or other key buildings "to any large degree."
"And again, I will repeat, threatening and intimidation are already a criminal offence."
With files from Charlie Pinkerton and David Hains
Correction: This story was updated on Wednesday, October 6 to clarify the intent of Roman Baber's private member's bill, and to include language that reflects the different pools of voters that some MPPs may target, given the separation between people who may oppose some public health measures and the conspiratorial fringe.