In politics, a “dog whistle” is the use of coded or suggestive language to build support, highlight, and, in some cases, divide. When politicians use this tactic, they’re sending a message that they “get” the concerns or biases of a particular group, and stand with its like-minded members.
Dog whistles aren’t new in Canadian politics. Think the Conservatives’ 2015 election-campaign reference to “barbaric cultural practices” — an ostensibly compassionate and pro-women policy that gave the distinct (and deliberate) impression that it was targeting the Muslim community — or the frequent Liberal claims that Conservatives have a “hidden agenda” to impose social conservatism on the country.
We appear to have reached the point in the pandemic where our leaders feel free to employ dog whistles to divide Canadians for political advantage.
First up was Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who appealed last week for “reasonable accommodation” for the unvaccinated. This was a misreading of public opinion; there’s precious little appetite for any type of accommodation for those who’ve chosen not to be inoculated against COVID-19.
At a time when millions of children can’t attend school, thousands of surgeries are being delayed, and millions of dollars are being spent to treat the unvaccinated, who are now clogging our shaky acute-care system, O’Toole’s position lends undeserved credibility to the minority of Canadians who value personal preference over their fellow citizens’ safety.
Then there were the musings of Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who opened the door last Friday to universal compulsory inoculations: “I think discussions need to be had about mandatory vaccinations, because we have to get rid of COVID-19.”
On the surface, his rationale made a lot of sense: “What we see now is that our health-care system in Canada is fragile,” Duclos said. “I see in my own province (of Quebec that) 50 per cent of hospitalizations … are due to people not having been vaccinated. That’s a burden on health-care workers (and) society, which is very difficult to bear, and, for many people, difficult to understand.”
That’s an accurate description of the challenges posed by the unvaccinated, but Duclos’ conclusion is faulty. This being Canada, he’s tossed a ticking time bomb to the provinces in the hope they’ll do the deed — whatever that deed might be. But if the federal government feels so strongly about mandatory vaccinations, it already has the Emergencies Act, and should use it.
So far, Canadian courts and employment adjudicators have upheld vaccine mandates and their enforcement, but these mandates have been largely limited to the workplace. Making vaccinations compulsory for the general population raises a host of legal and practical enforcement issues that are best left unexplored.
Even if a mandatory vaccine mandate could survive the courts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, how exactly would it be implemented? Is Duclos actually contemplating forced vaccinations? Who does he envision holding the miscreants down and jabbing them with the needle? Good luck finding medical professionals prepared to go down that road. Does the minister actually have answers to these questions? Or is he merely decrying the unvaccinated as the enemy, without the risk of putting actual policy proposals behind his rhetoric?
There are alternatives to such a draconian approach, of course. French President Emmanuel Macron made a lot of sense when he recently said he intended to use public measures to “piss off” the unvaccinated.
Instead of mandating vaccines universally, the objective should be to make life as difficult and unpleasant as possible for those who’ve chosen not to be vaccinated. Quebec’s proposal to make entry into liquor and cannabis stores contingent on proof of vaccination is a perfect example of that approach. Italy is extending vaccine mandates to the use of urban public transit. Should mandates be extended to more occupational groups and commercial establishments, as we weigh intentional inconvenience against essential public services? And what falls in which category?
There are also more positive measures to be pursued. Recently, the CEO of Toronto’s University Health Network urged Health Canada to hasten approval of anti-viral treatments, such as Pfizer’s antiviral drug Pavloid, which has proven 89 per cent effective at keeping the infected out of hospital.
The comments by O’Toole and Duclos suggest that dog-whistling is risky business. When they drive wedges into volatile issues that exacerbate divisions in society, or when they raise more questions than they answer, the collateral damage can include the whistler.
Geoff Norquay is a principal with Earnscliffe Strategies in Ottawa. He was a senior social policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1984 to 1988, and Stephen Harper’s director of communications when the latter was leader of the official Opposition.
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