Government & Policy
Push to criminalize harassment of health workers
November 24, 2021
OTTAWA – The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is calling on the federal government and some social media companies to reduce threats and violence front-line healthcare professionals are experiencing at work.
Earlier this fall, there were protests happening outside hospitals in multiple Canadian cities, during which participants berated some patients and healthcare workers going inside the facilities.
In response, during the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would make it an offence to obstruct access to any building providing health services, as well as the intimidation or threatening of any healthcare worker or patient, if re-elected.
In a news release issued, the CMA is now urging Ottawa to make these promised changes to the Criminal Code.
In addition, the CMA is contacting Twitter, Meta (Facebook/Instagram), Alphabet (YouTube), Microsoft (LinkedIn) and TikTok to collaborate on the development of an action plan to stop online harassment and personal threats against healthcare professionals.
“All of these things taken together really create an even greater burden on healthcare providers, [who] are already at or past their breaking point in the midst of everything that’s being going on in the past couple years,” Dr. Alika Lafontaine (pictured), president-elect of the CMA, told CBC News.
Workplace violence for physicians and healthcare workers isn’t new, but it is being compounded by online hate and the COVID-19 pandemic, said Lafontaine, who works in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
Lafontaine has personally experienced workplace violence, including being spat on, swung at and having bodily fluids thrown at him.
Social media has worsened the situation, especially because of rampant misinformation, he said.
“It should be no surprise that, in the midst of all these things, the interactions and the incidences and intensity of violence have also gotten worse in the past couple of years,” he said.
“During the pandemic, health workers have shared scientific knowledge, advanced evidence-based positions and advocated for the public’s health and wellness on social media. We should be celebrating these voices, but instead, they are at risk of being silenced by harmful, hateful and bullying behaviour,” says CMA president Dr. Katharine Smart.
Edmonton infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger has also dealt with similar harassment.
In an effort to combat misinformation, she started using Twitter during the pandemic. The responses have ranged from disagreements to personal attacks.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like people were more united. But it’s different now, she said.
“There’s been increasing polarization,” Saxinger said. Particular “silos of misinformation” have become consistently more aggressive, to the point where it almost seems organized. “That’s been a really disturbing thing to see happening,” she said.
Saxinger is grateful a national body is elevating the issue.
The current call from the CMA is partially to prevent “these abnormal things” occurring during the pandemic from continuing after it’s over, Lafontaine said.
The federal government is committed to making the promised changes to the Criminal Code and is “looking at all options to make that promise a reality as soon as possible,” federal Justice Minister David Lametti said in a statement.