Ottawa trucker protest

A protester walks in front of parked trucks as demonstrators continue to protest the vaccine mandates implemented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo: Dave Chan / AFP via Getty Images)

Ontario Premier Ford Plays High-Stakes Game of Vaccine Poker

The ending of COVID-19 restrictions turns out to be pretty much what the “freedom” crowd demanded.

And the winner is ... no, not Will Smith. Someone even less deserving - Tamara Lich and the folks from the trucker convoy.

As Ontarians find themselves in the grip of a menacing sixth wave of the pandemic, the Ford government's ending of COVID restrictions turns out to be pretty much what the "freedom" crowd demanded.

Indeed, the throng of anti-vaxxers, white supremacists and other assorted hate-mongers who held Ottawa hostage for three weeks are a key part of Doug Ford's base, and he's managed to quietly deliver them a victory while seemingly just lifting constraints because the COVID situation has improved.

Except that it hasn't. And it's absurd that the premier is trying to pass things off as fine when they're not. Estimated infection levels are now almost equal to the Omicron peak in early January and hospitalizations across the province are up 40 percent this week.

Ford insists that the province can "ramp up" to 3,000 ICU beds if needed. But all those beds won't help without nurses to staff them, and the province has the lowest number of nurses per capita of any province in Canada.

Ontario recently announced $5,000 retention bonuses for nurses but that won't compensate for the fact that wage increases for nurses, along with most of the provincial public sector, have been capped by the Ford government at 1 percent -- when inflation is running at close to 6 per cent.

Of course, the convoy mob didn't get everything it wanted - the Senate and governor general never acted on their demand to remove Justin Trudeau and form a new government with the protesters themselves. But it did win its central demand to end vaccine mandates and passports. Ontario, as well as most other provinces, have obliged.

As a result, the same folks who frolicked in hot tubs and bouncy castles in front of the Parliament buildings for three never-ending weeks, bringing fear and misery to Ottawa residents, can now shop maskless (and unvaccinated) in grocery stores right next to the rest of us. Freeeee-dom!

Or to paraphrase a Janis Joplin song: Freedom's just another word for being able to pick up a highly transmissible variant while also picking up broccoli.

Placating the broader anti-vax crowd involves a delicate balancing act for Canada's premiers -- with particularly high stakes for Doug Ford in Ontario, where sentiment is strong on both sides of the public health issue and where an election looms on June 2.

Ford has been playing a wily game of vaccine poker. After the free-roaming white-supremacist crowd took control of Ottawa, honking all night, attacking sniveling opponents of freedom who wore masks, and exhibiting a lack of toilet-training in front of the monument to Canada's war dead, Ford termed the behavior "unacceptable" and "an occupation."

This was clearly the minimum required for the premier to avoid alienating the vast majority of Ontarians who, if they happened to own bouncy castles, used them in the privacy of their own homes.

At the same time, Ford was winking his support to the convoy crowd. A committee set up to engage all three levels of government in ending the siege hadn't been able to start, the feds reported, because the Ford government hadn't sent a representative.

And claims by Ontario's solicitor general that the province had dispatched 1,500 OPP officers to help out in Ottawa turned out to be wildly exaggerated. It was maybe 200 max, according to Ottawa police.

When the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act - probably unnecessary if all levels of government had properly enforced the laws at their disposal - the focus of public debate shifted. Ford was able to fade back into the background on the issue, while quickly giving the anti-vax crowd exactly what they wanted.

It looks like Ford may get away with his high-stakes poker - unless the rest of the population realizes that they've been thrown under some giant trucks by a premier intent on delivering a juicy bone to some of the most boorish and unhinged members of his base.

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