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Liberal MP Joël Lightbound says his party's COVID policy 'stigmatizes and divides people'

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-02-08 John Paul Tasker

Liberal Quebec MP Joël Lightbound says he's uncomfortable with the federal government's handling of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, saying its pandemic response has become "politicized" and "divisive."

Pointing to more than a dozen developed countries that have started to do away with restrictions already, Lightbound said Tuesday it's reasonable to rethink Canada's COVID-19 approach as it becomes increasingly clear that the world will be dealing with this virus for years to come.

Lightbound said people who question existing policies should not be "demonized" by their prime minister.

"I can't help but notice with regret that both the tone and the policies of my government have changed drastically since the last election campaign. It went from a more positive approach to one that stigmatizes and divides people," Lightbound said.

Lightbound said the Liberal government's decision to put vaccines at the centre of the political debate risks undermining public trust in the country's public health institutions.

"It's becoming harder and harder to know when public health stops and where politics begins," he said. "It's time to stop dividing Canadians and pitting one part of the population against another."

Although he's criticizing the government's approach, Lightbound said he has no desire to leave the Liberal caucus.

Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, the government whip, said Lightbound resigned his position as the Quebec caucus chair over these "disagreements with government policy." MacKinnon said Lightbound would remain a Liberal MP.

Lightbound — a former parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance — said he hopes his comments will push Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to "adapt to the changing reality of the pandemic and of the world."

Speaking briefly to reporters before Tuesday's question period, Trudeau said he understands there's a lot of frustration with the current suite of policies.

"We're all frustrated. We're all sick and tired of restrictions, of mandates. It's been two years and it's really, really tiring for all of us," he said, adding that his government will stay the course.

"Mandates are the way to avoid further restrictions. This government has been focused on following the best science, the best public health advice, to keep people safe and, quite frankly, it's worked," Trudeau added, citing Canada's lower COVID-19-related death rates compared to many other countries.

With Omicron case counts on the decline, some provinces, notably Alberta and Saskatchewan, have signalled they will begin to drop restrictions in the weeks ahead. Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer, said last week Canadians will have to "learn to live with this virus and to be less fearful of it."

Ottawa must offer a 'roadmap,' MP says

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill, Lightbound said COVID-19-related restrictions have wreaked havoc for too long and the federal government needs to provide some sort of "roadmap" for lifting pandemic measures, such as the strict limits on travel. He said measures that were reasonable in a previous phase of the pandemic should not be "normalized with no end in sight."


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While he didn't call for an immediate end to all public health measures, Lightbound said the federal government should establish "clear and measurable targets" for lifting pandemic measures to offer hope to Canadians tired of living with some of the most restrictive rules in the developed world.

Lightbound said the federal government should heed the advice of experts like Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, and "reassess" pandemic programs like vaccine mandates once the Omicron wave is under control.

Last week, Tam said the country needs to find a more "sustainable" way to deal with the pandemic and future variants of the virus.

Lightbound said he supported the Liberal push for vaccine mandates in the last election but has since soured on this policy choice because the data suggest two doses of an mRNA vaccine do little to prevent an Omicron infection. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has said that two doses of any of the mRNA vaccines — which were made to target the original strain of the virus — are not very effective against infection and symptomatic disease due to Omicron. It has described vaccine efficacy against an Omicron infection as "low to very low."

Tam was more blunt in a press conference last week. "The protection against infection is certainly reduced with two doses. It doesn't protect you against infection," she said.

People with two doses of a vaccine are less likely to be admitted to hospital, however. PHAC data suggest unvaccinated people are 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people vaccinated with two doses.

A third booster shot provides superior protection, dramatically reducing the likelihood of severe outcomes, according to PHAC data. A third dose might also help to prevent an actual infection.

Lightbound said the country's leaders can't lose sight of just how damaging restrictions like lockdowns have been for many aspects of daily life.

"A population's health, it's kind of like a pie and Omicron is but a slice of that pie. Economic health, social health and mental health must also be accounted for," he said.

The Quebec MP said the government's hard line on the vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers is not based on science. Lightbound said the government has produced no research to suggest this sort of mandate — which could sideline 12,000 to 16,000 commercial drivers — will have a meaningful impact on the pandemic's trajectory.

Lightbound said the vaccine mandate has become a "wedge" issue designed to score political points off the government's opponents.

Echoing concerns raised by industry groups like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Council of Canada, Lightbound said the policy is too disruptive to the country's supply chains and pushes up the price of goods.

Trudeau has strongly defended the policy, saying a wave of COVID-19 cases is doing more to disrupt Canada's supply chains than any vaccine mandate could.

People stand in the Ottawa anti-pandemic rule protest 'red zone' in front of Parliament Hill on Feb. 8, 2022. © Simon Lasalle/Radio-Canada People stand in the Ottawa anti-pandemic rule protest 'red zone' in front of Parliament Hill on Feb. 8, 2022.

The opposition Conservatives have made arguments similar to what Lightbound advanced Tuesday. Candice Bergen, the party's interim leader, has called on Trudeau to present Canadians with a "pathway out of the pandemic" now that vaccination rates are high and Omicron case counts have dropped.

Bergen has called for an end to all vaccine mandates, including those that apply to travellers by air or rail, cross-border essential workers like truckers, and federal public servants and workers in other federally regulated industries.

"It is time to depoliticize the response to the pandemic," she said.

While he questioned the usefulness of vaccine mandates, Lightbound condemned the ongoing demonstration in Ottawa — a protest that a number of Conservative MPs and senators have embraced.

"I have absolutely no sympathy for them," he said of racist elements in the convoy. "It's time to stop the occupation. It's time for truckers to leave."

Lightbound also said the federal government should immediately enter discussions with the provinces and territories about increasing the Canada Health Transfer. He said Ottawa should focus its financial firepower on the root cause of lockdowns and restrictions: the country's limited hospital capacity.

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