By Megan Camlasaran
Photography by Jes Mason and Kosalan Kathiramalanathan
As ‘anti-vax’ protests increase in size and happen beside campus on a weekly basis, some Ryerson students say they’re worried about protests shifting onto campus grounds because of the disruptions and violence they can cause.
When vaccine passports were announced in Ontario on Sept. 1, anti-vaccine protests became increasingly visible, disruptive and violent on the streets of Toronto.
Demonstrations against public health measures for COVID-19 have been happening in downtown Toronto nearly every Saturday for the past 17 months. These demonstrators typically rally at Queen’s Park and march down to Yonge Street, eventually making their way past Ryerson’s campus.
On Sept. 25, prominent anti-vax influencer Chris Sky held an independent rally near Yonge-Dundas Square, shutting down the intersection once the Queen’s Park rally marched by. Speeches were filled with disinformation, conspiracy theories and calls to end public health measures.
The event ended with demonstrators fighting police as they attempted to enter the Eaton Centre. Toronto police charged a man and woman with assault after clashing with security staff from the mall.
According to Kurt Phillips, a board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, people who protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and lockdown measures have an innate distrust of government. Phillips, who has been following trends of anti-vaccine protests closely, said protestors feed into disinformation circulating on social media and form conspiracy theories that are becoming a means of justification for the demonstrations.
“It makes me sick watching all this happening…this is a privilege to have the choice to not get vaccinated,” said Meg Howell, a first-year social work student.
“I think they’re a bad influence,” said Max Balitbit, a first-year media production student who lives on campus at the Daphne Cockwell Complex. “I mean, it’s a civil right, but they’re saying some things I don’t agree with. They’re using scare tactics that are irresponsible.”
“Having it be so close, knowing they could walk five seconds to our doorstep and be here is a little concerning,” said Balitbit, adding she would feel safer if there were more security to contain the protests to one area.
Vinnie Rodenburgh, a first-year psychology student who lives at Pitman Hall, said it would make them feel “uncomfortable, upset and unsafe” if anti-vaccine protests were to occur on campus because of the number of people who might join.
Rodenburgh also said “it feels like a bigger threat” because of how big and disruptive the anti-vaccine protest was outside of Toronto General Hospital on Sept. 13.
Ryerson, among other Ontario universities, requires all individuals coming to campus to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and submit proof of vaccination. “Each of us has the power to help protect our classmates, professors, colleagues, friends and loved ones and help stop the spread of the virus and reduce its harmful impacts,” a statement from the university reads.
However, some students told The Eyeopener they don’t trust that Ryerson can protect them from anti-vax protests happening near or on campus. Howell said she doesn’t think the university handles protests very well in general, considering she was recently exposed to anti-choice protestors on campus that made her feel uncomfortable.
Meg Konechny, a first-year film student, echoed Howell’s concerns but added that she “understands that it can be hard” to deal with any protests close to campus because protesting is a civil right. “I just wish it wasn’t a problem because it’s pretty selfish,” she said.
Since recent escalations of anti-vax protests, the City of Toronto has seen protestors harass and send violent threats to workers in businesses and public officials who are enforcing vaccine passports. There’s also been an increase in Asian-Canadians being targeted and accosted, according to Phillips.
“These people will oppose any form of authority and the belief they are being told to do something will result in them digging their heels in even more,” he said.
Phillips added that anti-vax influencers like Sky, who purposely try to incite civil unrest, maintain an echo chamber on social media. They don’t accept dissent, causing supporters to think their anti-government views are mainstream.
“Even when COVID is in the rearview mirror, a lot of these people aren’t going anywhere and will gravitate to the next thing that will outrage them,” said Phillips.
With files from Kosalan Kathiramalanathan
“It makes me sick watching all this happening…this is a privilege to have the choice to not get vaccinated”