HURON-PERTH – A group founded by five current and former elected representatives have come together to form the ‘End the Lockdowns National Caucus.’ The caucus purports to be a non-partisan group seeking to provide formal challenges to current COVID-19 policies with a specific emphasis on ending governments use of province-wide lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
The founding members of the End the Lockdowns National Caucus are:
- Randy Hillier, an independent MPP representing the riding of Lanark-Frontenac- Kingston, who was suspended from the Progressive Conservative caucus by Premier Doug Ford on Feb. 20, 2019, after making what Ford said were “disrespectful comments to parents of children with autism.” He was subsequently removed from the PC caucus on March 15, 2019.
- Maxime Bernier, former Conservative MP and founder of the People’s Party of Canada.
- Derek Sloan, first-term MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington, who has stirred up controversy with potentially homophobic tweets, alleged racist remarks regarding Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, and finally, on Jan. 20, he was expelled from the Conservative Party caucus after it was revealed he had received a donation from white supremacist Paul Fromm. Party Leader Erin O’Toole explained that the decision had been made “because of a pattern of destructive behaviour involving multiple incidents.”
- Steve VanLeeuwen, a Centre Wellington Councillor who may be removed from his position as deputy mayor. Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton said in an interview with the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 11 that he will be introducing a motion at the Feb. 16 council meeting to remove VanLeeuwen as deputy mayor and replace him with another councillor.
- Daryl Herlick, a Township of Perth East Councillor, who also serves on Perth County council and the Huron-Perth Public Health Board.
Herlick said he was motivated to join the caucus because of the stories he is hearing from frustrated business owners and children who are not able to play sports or sing.
“Look, we all gave time, we all did our respect around COVID precautions… look the caucus is a group of great individuals, no politics, I assure you this is about facts and solid direction where things should go,” he said. “The psychological games on people (going) in and out of lockdowns is playing havoc, man this is military-style torture.”
Herlick said he is not happy to see people turning on local Public Health units.
“I have seen firsthand the quality of life our local health unit gives us all for years, my family has business inspected by HPPH,” he said. “They are great and an important part of Canadian culture.”
Herlick made it clear that the views of the caucus do not represent the views of the councils he sits on, but he reiterated he thinks the caucus is made up of a great group of people with “no party lines to toe.”
Although other local municipal council members shared concern for small businesses, no other council members the Listowel Banner contacted supported the caucus’s anti-lockdown message.
“Many people across the public sector at both provincial and local level have been extremely conscientious in the pursuit of public safety during the period of the pandemic,” said Perth County Coun. Todd Kasenberg. “They have acted from a place of goodwill, and participated in what can only be considered a global learning laboratory.”
He said there are examples of what good and poor management look like during this pandemic. “We can look to smaller places like New Zealand and Western Australia and even the Atlantic provinces of Canada for lessons about what can interrupt disease transmission,” he said.
Within Ontario, Kasenberg pointed out that when the stay-at-home orders were required and observed by the public, the interruptions in disease transmission led to lower case counts.
“It isn’t surprising that a respiratory droplet- and aerosol-transmitted viral infection is interrupted by maintaining physical distance and the wearing of masks to reduce the spread of, for lack of better terms, spit,” he said. “It doesn’t take a degree in medicine to understand this.
“I remain concerned about those who are deniers of the seriousness of the COVID-19 disease. I remain concerned about those who have concocted conspiracy theories suggesting that science and public officials are misleading us based on some unknown or hidden agenda. And ultimately, I remain concerned about those amongst us who just don’t get community. It takes a community to stop an infectious disease.”
Like many others, Kasenberg wants all levels of government to be open and transparent with the data used to make Public Health decisions which include restrictions on people’s movements and mandates like mask-wearing.
“In part, that’s because I believe all of us should be able to understand how decisions get made,” he said.
During the Jan. 14 meeting of Perth County council, Kasenberg called for the sharing of data with the public – in particular, concerning decisions which closed small stores and left big chains open – but he said he did not intend to send any message that the pandemic is not serious, or that the cure is worse than the disease.
“I accept and trust that our public health and senior political officials are making good choices,” he said. “The advent of the End the Lockdowns National Caucus – advocating, as I interpret it, for removal of many of the Public Health measures that have been protecting us – is concerning to me… We can look at what has happened in a good number of places around the world where restrictions were barely, if at all, imposed, or where restrictions were removed prematurely. Things didn’t turn out well. And directly – calls in our midst to release various public health restrictions seem to suggest that the lives and ability to participate in society of our seniors and those who are immune-compromised aren’t worth valuing, that they can be traded off. I reject that notion – it is not part of my morality.”
Rhonda Ehgoetz, mayor of the Township of Perth East, released a statement declaring support for Public Health measures which have been implemented to help ensure the safety of communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Township of Perth East does not support any member of council’s involvement in an organization that challenges COVID-19 policies and directives relating to safety measures and province-wide lockdowns and stay-at-home orders,” she wrote in the statement. “The Township of Perth East respects and supports the Public Health measures and restrictions implemented on the advice and guidance of medical professionals and experts at Huron-Perth Public Health, the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada. The measures are put in place in the interest of public health and safety.”
In the statement, Ehgoetz recognized that coping with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year has been challenging for everyone.
“We want nothing more than to see our loved ones again and have life return to normal,” she wrote. “The best way to keep everyone safe and to bring a swift end to COVID-19 is to continue abiding by Public Health measures and recommendations.”
According to Ehgoetz, Perth East will continue to make decisions and take actions that are consistent with the advice received from Public Health professionals.
Warden Jim Aitcheson said that Herlick’s decision to be part of the End the Lockdowns National Caucus expresses personal views and does not represent views shared by fellow council members.
“The county is still supporting all the Public Health measures and restrictions,” he said. “We have to rely on the guidance of our medical officer of health… and I realize that it’s unfortunate that a lot of the small businesses have been locked down when some of the big box stores can still be open but … (the stay-at-home order) has had the desired effect they wanted. I see the case counts are dropping fairly steadily.”
Although Aitcheson said concerns are being raised that vaccine hesitancy might be an issue, he thinks there might be a rush for the vaccine when it becomes more available to the public.
“It’s gone on long enough now that people realize that if you aren’t going to be vaccinated then this isn’t going to end anytime soon,” he said.
Aitcheson said he has received some phone calls from residents who are concerned that Herlick’s opinions might conflict with his duties as a councillor. Herlick is one of two Perth County representatives on the Huron-Perth Public Health Board.
“If someone thought that was a conflict of interest then I guess they could go through the channels needed to ask that question,” said Aitcheson.
“But I honestly can’t make that determination because it’s not me who expressed that opinion. I support what’s going on – I want to get this over and done with. The small businesses are struggling and everybody is struggling mentally and the sooner we can get this under control.”
He said Ontario has already seen what happens when the Public Health guidance is only partially enforced.
“You see what happened in November-December,” said Aitcheson. “We were pretty good through the summer and then it started to go back up and you locked down one region and not another region and they just travel and that just spreads it.”
Kathy Vassilakos, chair of the Huron-Perth Public Health Board stated unequivocally that the board supports all the public health measures the local health unit, the province and the federal government are instituting to deal with the pandemic.
“I just want to start by being very, very clear on the board’s position on the current pandemic measures and the work that’s being done,” she said.
She mentioned that Herlick is a political appointee representing Perth County on the board.
“We do not know the criteria with which or how they go about making appointments to the board,” she said.
At the Dec. 17 meeting of county council, councillors chose which committees and boards they wished to sit on for 2021. There are no criteria which have to be met to sit on a committee other than being a council member.
“So, he is a member of our board and the End the Lockdowns Caucus itself,” said Vassilakos. “I’m the chair of the Public Health unit. I’m also a scientist. I have a PhD in Biochemistry. I am a councillor for the city of Stratford where my responsibility is to the public interest and evidence-based decision making that balances all the different factors that are involved in the issue, so clearly, an evidence-based approach that is rooted in sound public health policy… is contrary to the stated goals of the End the Lockdowns Caucus.”
She said she was pleased with Mayor Ehgoetz’s statement released on behalf of the Township of Perth East.
“It has been a long difficult year – lots of overtime work on the part of our staff at Huron Perth Public Health and I think a statement like Ehgoetz’s showing confidence for our Public Health officials and the staff is important,” said Vassilakos. “Our Public Health staff have done an amazing job. They are sort of the unsung heroes of the pandemic… They do their job – they do it quietly and efficiently and they’ve put in tons of overtime.”
Public Health staff are at the forefront of understanding social determinates, economic impacts of health and the importance of school, so Vassilakos said when organizations like the End the Lockdowns Caucus say that those things are not being considered it’s an unfair assessment of how Public Health approaches this public health crisis.
“I think the conversations… over the last year would reflect we have a very good understanding of all the factors that are involved and the balancing act that has to be done,” she said. “It’s all about harm reduction – how do we make sure we save lives and at the same time provide support for citizens who may be struggling.”
“Huron-Perth residents have done a great job to get our case numbers down,” said Dr. Miriam Klassen, medical officer of health for Huron Perth Public Health. “Although the stay-at-home order will end, people are encouraged to continue following public health measures, limiting their contact with people from outside their household, and limiting their non-essential activities. We must all stay the course to keep case numbers down.”
With files from the Wellington Advertiser
Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.