Emotion and anger over pandemic public-health orders have hit new Manitoba Premier Kelvin Goertzen right where he lives.
The longtime Progressive Conservative Steinbach MLA said Thursday that in some instances, the vitriol has erupted in threats of violence against him and his family.
"I won't go into the details, and a lot of them have been handled by law enforcement, and I appreciate that they take those things seriously. But there's no doubt we've faced that and probably elected officials across the country have," Goertzen said.
Some provincial government elected officials and public-health experts have received threats following the imposition of pandemic restrictions. In July, Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, revealed he and his family had been threatened and that there had been "suspicious activity" around his home that required the involvement of law enforcement officials.
Goertzen said he continues to support current public-health orders, including vaccine mandates and proof-of-vaccination protocols, to help keep COVID-19 in check, thereby ensuring all Manitobans can get the health care they need.
"I think what we’ve done now on proof of vaccinations… is the right thing for where we are right now," he said in his first extended interview since becoming premier when Brian Pallister stepped down last month.
"Do I like it? I don’t like it. Do I want to see it persist for a long time? Of course not. From my perspective, the sooner we don’t need it, the better. But I also know that as premier and as an elected official, I have a responsibility to do my best to make sure people can get surgeries, and they can get medical treatment."
Goertzen said he has endured many awkward and angry conversations in his home riding, trying to make the government's case for vaccine mandates and other restrictions while trying not to harden the position of constituents opposed to vaccinations and other pandemic public-health measures.
"(Steinbach) is a strong conservative riding, and there are many who disagree with our decisions. I’ve heard all of those things, and I’ve heard them in emotional ways," he said. "We’ve lost friends that we’ve had for a lifetime and we may never get them back. So that’s been really difficult."
However, while he doesn't want to provoke the anti-vaccination/anti-restriction crowd, Goertzen made it clear that government has introduced measures such as vaccine mandates that infringe on the rights of unvaccinated Manitobans out of necessity, not preference.
"Sometimes we’re just choosing between bad options," he said. "I think that in the short term, the proof of vaccination — while I don’t like it and I don’t want it long term — is a better place to be than having to cancel 15,000 surgeries."
Goertzen's clear support for vaccine mandates and proof-of-vaccination cards comes as the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the Progressive Conservatives and next premier have raised questions about what they would do to change public-health orders.
One, former MP Shelly Glover, says she opposes mandates but would be willing to change her mind if she could be convinced by public-health officials. The other, MLA Heather Stefanson, has said she opposes "mandatory vaccination" but supports "vaccine mandates," a semantic sleight of hand that some political observers believe was an attempt to curry the favour of anti-vaccination party members.
Notwithstanding the confusion that has surrounded the Tory leadership race, Goertzen said his government can be justifiably proud of its pandemic response, particularly becoming the first province with a proof-of-vaccination card and QR code.
"We’re well ahead of other provinces in terms of that infrastructure," he said. "I think Ontario just started yesterday with proof of vaccination and they’re still using a paper system. Other provinces are still catching up. So, I think there was that foresight to get ahead on things we might need and we’re benefiting from that now. And I don’t think that gets the attention that it deserves."
Goertzen said all he can do is try to ease the concerns of his constituents and other Manitobans by assuring them the vaccines are safe and that getting the shot is the best way to ensure the province won't have to lock down again.
"Please understand that we’re all striving for the same thing," he said. "We all do want to be able to go to our businesses and to our houses of worship and we want our kids to go to school. We all really, really want that even if we disagree with how we get there."
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.