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'I can't back down' on COVID-19 vaccine message, says threatened B.C. politician

VANCOUVER — Politicians accustomed to sparring in British Columbia's legislature have joined forces outside the house to push for higher vaccination rates in the north, but a longtime member of the Opposition Liberals says the "Alberta influence" is

VANCOUVER — Politicians accustomed to sparring in British Columbia's legislature have joined forces outside the house to push for higher vaccination rates in the north, but a longtime member of the Opposition Liberals says the "Alberta influence" is a factor in a part of B.C. where intensive care units can't accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients.

Mike Bernier said proximity to neighbouring Alberta "set us back from day one" when it comes to some northern residents shunning vaccination.

"It would be the Alberta influence. A good portion of people in Dawson Creek, Pouce Coupe, the Fort St. John area, are very closely related, whether it be for personal reasons or through work, with Alberta," he said. "And we've seen the problems in Alberta with a solid message of trying to get people vaccinated until just recently, and the crisis that they're in."

Bernier said some were so angry when B.C. introduced vaccine passports that they posted online messages about shooting him for supporting the policy.

Most residents in the B.C. region aren't anti-vaxxers, Bernier said. "They're strong willed and do not like government intervention. They just want to work and raise their families and are very skeptical of government officials in general telling them what to do."

Bernier, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 two days before his appointment for a first dose of a vaccine last May, has steadfastly spoken in favour of vaccination, making him a target of threats. About 100 people rallied last month outside his office in Dawson Creek, where Northern Health says 55 per cent of those eligible had received a second dose as of Tuesday. B.C.'s overall vaccination rate was about 82 per cent on Thursday.

"I got contacted by the RCMP because they had made a big Facebook rally page, and somebody went on there about 10 minutes beforehand saying 'perfect, now we know where he is. Let's get our guns and go shoot this guy so we don't have to listen to him any more,'" Bernier said.

"I can't back down on the message of what I know and think is right for the people in my region. And, you know, nobody's going to deter me from that just by making some threats."

Bernier responded to the crowd by standing in the back of a pickup truck and saying that such online comments make the job of people in public life harder as they're trying to represent all constituents.

Premier John Horgan commended Bernier and his colleague Dan Davies, whose Peace River North riding includes Fort St. John, at a news conference Thursday for their vigilance in encouraging vaccination.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has also publicly thanked Bernier and Davies, along with local mayors.

While provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and politicians on opposite sides of the legislative aisle are pleading for more people to get vaccinated, at least one mayor in the northern region has questioned whether the high number of hospitalizations is actually due to people being unvaccinated.

Pouce Coupe Mayor Lorraine Michetti said politicians create divisions in a community by encouraging people to get vaccinated because that's a personal choice.

"People have paid property taxes, they've paid income taxes. They have rights not to be vaccinated if they don't want to be," said Michetti in an interview, adding she is fully vaccinated.

In the case of First Nations, there are other reasons for lower vaccination rates. 

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, said Indigenous people who have not been vaccinated "really have carried on a historic distrust of government, generally of health systems," noting anti-Indigenous racism in British Columbia's health-care system as outlined in a report earlier this year was "triggering."

McDonald said the number of COVID-19 cases has risen dramatically in the 203 communities across the province where it has responsibility, going from 10 to 15 a day in mid-August to 256 after the Labour Day weekend. Fifty-two of those communities are in northern B.C.

McDonald said there are lower vaccination rates among those in the 19- to 39-year-old age groups in those communities, where it stands at "the mid-50s to 60s." 

The health authority has recently changed tactics to raise vaccination rates, going from mass clinics to having vaccine doses on hand in the community at all times so people who come for regular medical appointments can get their questions answered and decide if they want to get vaccinated on the spot.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2021.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press