CENTRE WELLINGTON – Township councillor Steven VanLeeuwen has joined the “End the Lockdowns Caucus,” a group of politicians opposed to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the province.
The caucus sees the lockdown and stay-at-home order as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is urging the government to lift restrictions and allow businesses to reopen.
“I’ve been listening to people’s stories and the effect of the lockdown is not good for the community,” VanLeeuwen said in an interview on Feb. 5. “I had to speak up.”
The group includes Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MPP Randy Hillier, Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP Derek Sloan, former MP and current PPC Party Leader Maxime Bernier, Perth East councillor Darryl Herlick and VanLeeuwen, a Centre Wellington councillor.
Several members of the group have been criticized by public health officials and fellow politicians for spreading misinformation about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines. Hillier and Sloan have also been expelled from the caucuses of their respective political parties.
“We are … unified in pursuit of the truth, and resolved to ensure there is open, honest, and public debate regarding the COVID-19 government response,” states a Feb. 4 press release from the group.
“After careful examination and scrutiny of mitigation measures undertaken by all levels of government, it is now evident that the lockdowns cause more harm than the virus and must be brought to an end.”
The group is advocating for “the just and compassionate objective of reopening our businesses, schools, places of worship, recreational facilities, along with the full resumption and expansion of efficient medical services.”
It says it is committed to the above while also “implementing focused protection for the most vulnerable.”
VanLeeuwen, also a local business owner, said that since the pandemic began there has been an increase in mental illness, more domestic violence, more people with eating disorders, more unemployment and hunger than ever and he blames that on public health restrictions.
And the restrictions are in direct opposition to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.
The charter “recognizes what is essential to life and that includes the right to earn a living, the right to travel, to personal beliefs, to gather and congregate. Those are the essentials,” he said.
“Public health is only taking one area of life into account. Public health is governing what life looks like. But public health does not understand what life is to me.”
Provincial and local public health officials have repeatedly stated that health guidelines introduced since the outset of the pandemic are effective in limiting the spread of the virus.
And they point to the significant decline in cases recently as proof that lockdown measures are working.
VanLeeuwen said there needs to be a balanced approach to the pandemic and that businesses and churches should be allowed to operate once again.
“It’s not selfish,” he said. “It’s about focussed protection.”
VanLeeuwen said it’s the elderly who are most affected by COVID-19 and it would be better and more effective if the government focussed its spending on properly caring for the elderly instead of imposing restrictions that impact every aspect of life for everyone.
It’s tragic that elderly people are dying from the disease, he said, and that because of restrictions, they are dying alone.
“We are so focussed on getting the infection rate down, we look right past the other problems,” he said.
“I am saying this with compassion and passionately.”
In a follow-up email, VanLeeuwen wrote, “I hope my passion and care for the people in all areas does not make you think that I am not concerned for the most vulnerable sector.”
Public health officials have stated that limiting community transmission of COVID-19 is key to limiting the spread of the virus in long-term care and retirement home settings.
Stephen Kitras, also a Centre Wellington councillor and business owner, said he is in favour of what VanLeeuwen has done.
“It’s a very positive motion to start something like this,” Kitras said in a phone interview on Feb. 5.
“I support this. There needs to be fulsome discussion on this lockdown. The way decisions are made is quite authoritarian, with one unelected person deciding how it goes.”
Kitras said democracy is founded on the idea that matters involving civil liberties require rigorous debate and that many viewpoints should be heard before decisions with such far-reaching consequences are made.
“The lockdown is not just medical – it’s economic too. There should be debate. You can’t just squash voices,” he said.
That debate should be at the provincial level, he said, as municipal councils don’t have the jurisdiction.
Centre Wellington councillors Kirk McElwain and Bob Foster both told the Advertiser they are against VanLeeuwen’s move.
“I’m surprised, disappointed and potentially angry,” McElwain said. “I think it’s bad judgement.”
McElwain said as a representative of municipal government, VanLeeuwen should be promoting the municipal message about COVID-19 and not spreading the opposite message.
“It is not the right thing to do, and for a councillor and deputy mayor, it is disappointing,” McElwain said.
Foster said VanLeeuwen circulated an email to councillors in December encouraging them to speak out against the lockdown and other health protection measures.
“Councillor VanLeeuwen took the oath of office to uphold the law. Then he joined an extremist group,” Foster said.
“The mayor could have nipped this in the bud, but he did not.”
Foster also said the language in the Charter of Rights is very clear that rights are subject to reasonable limits and emergencies take precedence over charter rights.
He also suggested VanLeeuwen’s decision could be a violation of the Municipal Act and council’s code of conduct.
In an email, Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton declined an interview but said he is aware that VanLeeuwen has joined the End the Lockdowns Caucus.
“I have been consistent and unwavering in my approach since Day 1 of this global pandemic,” Linton said in an email statement.
“As both Mayor of Centre Wellington and Warden of Wellington County, I will continue to make decisions and take actions that are consistent with advice received by our public health professionals. That will not change.”
Linton added, “A few simple rules have been put in place by all levels of governments to ease the strain on our healthcare system, protect our most vulnerable and save lives.
“This current lockdown is primarily the result of these simple rules not being followed. That is what has to change.”
Councillors Ian MacRae and Neil Dunsmore did not respond to requests for an interview.