Liberal MP breaks with Justin Trudeau over COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions


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OTTAWA—In a striking break with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a backbench Liberal MP has accused his party of stoking divisions and using the pandemic for political gain.

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OTTAWA—In a striking break with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a backbench Liberal MP has accused his party of stoking divisions and using the pandemic for political gain.

It was the first crack in Liberal party unity amid a backlash against COVID-19 health measures that has exposed differences within the Conservative party and gripped Canada’s capital city, even as some provinces move to relax pandemic restrictions.

Joël Lightbound, the MP for the Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert, echoed the criticism of opposition Conservatives on Tuesday, when he expressed sympathy for some “Freedom Convoy” demonstrators who want to lift all pandemic health measures and have occupied the streets around Parliament Hill for almost two weeks.

- Twitter/@CanadianPM Joël Lightbound is the Liberal member of Parliament for Louis-Hébert.

Though he didn’t name anyone, Lightbound said “quite a few” Liberal MPs share his concerns with the Liberal government’s stance on COVID-19 health measures.

“I can’t help but notice with regret that both the tone and the policies of my government changed drastically on the eve — and during — the last election campaign,” said Lightbound, who later resigned as chair of the Liberals’ Quebec caucus.

“From a positive and unifying approach, a decision was made to wedge, to divide and to stigmatize. I fear that this politicization of the pandemic risks undermining the public’s trust in our public health institutions.”

During the federal election last summer, Trudeau and Liberal MPs faced aggressive protesters who denounced the government’s vaccine mandates. Trudeau condemned them at the time as “anti-vaxxer mobs.”

And before the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters launched demonstrations across the country — paralyzing downtown Ottawa and blockading border crossings in southwestern Ontario and Alberta — Trudeau said they were part of a “fringe minority” who held “unacceptable views.”

Such comments drew rebukes from the Conservative opposition, who have seen their own divisions over the convoy protests. Several Tory MPs, including Interim Leader Candice Bergen, have conveyed support for the demonstrations. Yet Quebec MP Pierre-Paul Hus called last week for the protest to end, while Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson left the Conservative caucus over the party’s failure to condemn the convoy.

One point on which the Tories are united is their longtime argument that the Liberal government has divided Canadians with vaccine mandates for domestic air travellers, federal bureaucrats and cross-border truckers.

The vaccine requirement for that last group sparked the ongoing occupation in the nation’s capital — something local officials have called a “siege” after widespread reports of harassment, hate crimes and property damage.

While Lightbound said Tuesday that he condemns symbols of hate and extremism like the Confederate flags and swastikas spotted in Ottawa, he argued governments shouldn’t “dismiss” or “demonize” protesters expressing what he sees as legitimate concerns with the persistence of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other restrictions.

He cited concerns about the mental health impacts of social isolation on children and seniors, as well as the economic impacts of lockdowns on businesses. He also echoed the language of protesters who allege there is “segregation” in Canadian society between people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who are not.

“Where the hell are we heading here in Canada? I think there lies the frustration,” he said, describing what he called public concern about vaccination passports and mandates being “normalized.”

He called on the federal government to develop a “road map” for lifting restrictions, expressed doubt that the vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers is justified by scientific evidence, and questioned why Trudeau has ruled out increasing federal health transfers — a key and long-standing demand of all provinces — until the pandemic is over.

On his way into the Commons for question period Tuesday, Trudeau said he understood the frustration but defended vaccine mandates as the path out of the pandemic.

“We’re all sick and tired of restrictions, of mandates, of having to make sacrifices, of not being able to do the things we love,” the prime minister said.

“Mandates are the way to avoid further restrictions … As Canadians have gotten vaccinated, we’ve been able to get through things. So this team is going to stay focused on doing exactly that.”

Marc Miller, the Liberal Crown-Indigenous relations minister, was more pointed. Describing politics as a “team sport,” Miller suggested Lightbound should know better than to express such views publicly.

He also disagreed with Lightbound’s assertion that the Liberal government’s COVID-19 policies are divisive.

“I think saving lives is much more than a political debate,” Miller said. “It’s something we’ve been relentless in doing over the last two years, and if Canadians think that’s politicizing the debate, I think they need to screw their heads on better,” Miller said.

Steven MacKinnon, the Liberal government whip, said he spoke with Lightbound Tuesday afternoon about his dissenting views.

“He has expressed disagreements with government policy. Subsequently, Mr. Lightbound has resigned as chair of the Quebec Liberal Caucus. He has expressed clear confidence in the government and remains a member of the Liberal caucus,” MacKinnon wrote in a Twitter statement.

Several members of the Conservative party — which is calling for an end to vaccine mandates and has similarly accused the Trudeau Liberals of politicizing the issue — commended Lightbound for his remarks.

“We are not alone! Finally Liberals are breaking ranks with Trudeau and calling for an end to the discriminatory mandates,” Alberta Conservative MP Chris Warkentin posted on Facebook.

Outside Parliament along Wellington Street, protesters danced and walked holding flags and placards with slogans now familiar throughout Ottawa, including claims that Trudeau committed “treason” and various denunciations of the “fake news” and vaccine mandates.

Standing near the fenced-in National War Memorial, Sylvain Bouchard welcomed Lightbound’s comments and agreed the pandemic has been divisive. Since he decided to join the convoy protests last weekend, Bouchard said some members of his family no longer want to speak with him. He hoped the protests had created a space for Canadians who share his skepticism of COVID-19 health restrictions to speak out.

“I think more and more people will come out of the shadows and be a little bit more brave,” he said.

Lightbound’s objection to his government’s pandemic response comes as several provinces move to wind down their own restrictions and vaccine policies.

Later Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced his province’s plan to scrap vaccination passports that same night, saying public health restrictions had led to “terrible division, even amongst family and friends.”

Earlier in the day, Saskatchewan announced its intent to end proof of vaccination requirements to enter certain indoor venues by Feb. 14., while Quebec shared a staged reopening plan starting this weekend, with the potential to reconsider mask mandates and vaccine passports in mid-March.

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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