Reality Check: No, Canadian Colleges and Universities Cannot Mandate COVID-19 Vaccination Without Violating Charter Rights

I believe we need to counter the misleading fact checks in the mainstream media with “reality checks”. I wrote my first reality check for the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship’s (SAFS) newsletter. I respond to a recent article titled “Canadian colleges and universities can mandate COVID-19 vaccination without violating Charter rights” by Drs. Samuel Trosow and Julie Lowe of Western University’s Faculty of Law. My common-sense analysis titled “Reality Check: No, Canadian Colleges and Universities Cannot Mandate COVID-19 Vaccination Without Violating Charter Rights” is available via direct link or as part of the PDF version of the newsletter (page 33-37). The SAFS newsletter No. 90 (Oct 2021) is a special issue on COVID Policies and Universities, which is well worth reading in its entirety.

Among the rectifications made to Trosow & Lowe’s essay, I show that they downplay the coercive nature of campus vaccine mandates. They also ignore the mismatch between the purported objective of vaccine mandates and the reality of the limited and waning efficacy of the available gene-based products, rendering campus policies arbitrary, disproportionate, and overly broad, and thus unconstitutional. Furthermore, I contend that the universities’ vaccination policies fail every “prong” of the Oakes test for reasonable limits to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One aspect here is the dynamically changing situation with respect to adverse events; an independent, unbiased cost-benefit analysis of the COVID-19 vaccines is the minimum that needs to be completed to sustain an infringement of fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

Note that I am aware of the uncertainty as to whether Charter rights directly apply to Canadian universities. The reality check assesses Trosow & Lowe’s claim that campus COVID-19 vaccine mandates do not violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. My verdict: the claim is false. This submission is for discussion only; it does not constitute legal or medical advice.

#IStandWithJuliePonesse – Here Is Why

Dr. Julie Ponesse, professor of Philosophy at Huron College at Western University in London, Ontario, published an emotional video on September 7, 2021, the day of return to campus for many Canadian universities and colleges. The video, which was censored by Youtube within hours but re-uploaded numerous times, including by myself here, reveals that Dr. Ponesse was threatened with dismissal from her faculty position or had already been dismissed that day. In the meantime, it has become clear that she was suspended with pay and received a “termination with cause” letter on September 16.

In the viral video, Prof. Ponesse gives a mock lecture in Ethics 101, using her own case. The central question is whether an employer is right to dismiss an employee in the midst of a successful and productive career for declining an unnecessary, experimental medical procedure. As per Ponesse’s expertise and dedication to teaching philosophical principles, the question is asked from a moral and ethical perspective. It is no secret that she was facing this exact situation, like many higher-education faculty members, and had already answered the question for herself with an unreserved “no”.

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The University and the Vaccine

Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, just announced its Fall 2021 return-to-campus procedures. The decision that “vaccines will not be mandatory“, which is highlighted in the title of the announcement, is a welcome distinction from certain other universities’ approaches. For example, under the guise of “safety first”, Western University in London, Ontario, “mandates vaccinations for students in residence“, noting possible exemptions under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the University of Toronto requires students to have at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to provide a “safe and welcoming residence experience” (no exceptions mentioned). Unfortunately, my university just announced a 180-degree turn from last week and followed its big sister across town to require vaccines for students living in residence on campus. Our spokesperson is quoted saying “This measure is necessary to support students’ safety, growth and development“.

Brock University – announcement of Fall 2021 return to campus procedures, https://brocku.ca/brock-news/2021/06/fall-update-planning-continues-for-return-to-campus-vaccines-will-not-be-mandatory/

Does a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine really provide a “safe and welcoming residence experience” and contribute to “safety, growth and development” of our students? It may indeed bestow a feeling of safety, which I argue is misconstrued as a consequence of persistent, possibly willful, ignorance of the science behind the vaccine trials and an outdated COVID-19 risk assessment.

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Science is Dead – Long Live “The” Science?

This year, politicians, public health officials, journalists, and even our Facebook friends are urging us to listen to “the” data, trust “the” evidence, and follow “the” science with respect to COVID-19. Yet, each of these groups feel entitled to select which data, evidence, and science they elevate to the royal rank of “the” data, evidence, and science. A quick reflection or a look at an encyclopedia (online or otherwise!) will reveal that science is a never-ending process of asking questions, making observations, structuring ideas, hypothesizing explanations, conducting experiments, and drawing preliminary conclusions that inevitably raise more questions to be researched. In complex systems and processes such as infectious disease spread, the data and evidence resulting from the scientific method, and the underlying models and theories, may never be conclusive, and as such it is foolish and misleading to speak of “the” one science guiding us through the corona crisis.

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Faces and Facets of the German-Speaking Corona Opposition

An account of events from March to September 2020

Owing to a set of personal circumstances, I was able to closely follow the first half year of Sars-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in Canada in comparison with Europe. Over there, Germany, and to a lesser extent Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, produced some of the earliest skeptical voices who put the virus’s threat into perspective. Germany also has perhaps the broadest spectrum of critics of the government response measures globally. In the interest of open discourse and exchange of ideas, I offer this subjective overview of key actors and aspects of the corona opposition in the German-speaking world. I am focusing specifically on the different areas of expertise represented among the dissenting views.

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Issues of Scale in the Corona Crisis

The granularity at which you look at COVID-19 may determine your attitude towards Sars-CoV-2

Scale is one of the most fundamental concepts in Geography. My PhD student just completed her dissertation on “The Consequence of Scale: Process and Policy Implications of Composite Index Modelling Using the Conceptual Framework of GIS-MCDA”, in which she compares biodiversity indices computed at different scales within a city, for example smaller census tracts vs larger social planning neighbourhoods. In Geographic Information Systems (GIS), we usually work with aggregated data, and the scale of aggregation can range from census blocks through postcode areas and neighbourhoods/wards to cities, counties, provinces, and countries. Results of data analytics are known to depend on several aspects of scale, including the observation/measurement scale, at which data are collected; modelling scale, at which data are analyzed; and operational/policy scale(s), at which decisions are made and implemented.

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The Saga of False-Positive COVID-19 Tests

[Skip to second paragraph if you are not interested in the German context of the false positives issue.]

On June 5, 2020, OVALMedia’s Robert Cibis interviewed the Austrian microbiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr. Martin Haditsch about laboratory tests and specifically the PCR test that is used globally to detect the Sars-CoV-2 virus in a person. The interview [in German] broached the issue of false-positive test results in the context of a low-prevalence disease and imperfect tests. Two Youtube copies of the one-hour interview have a total of over 100,000 views at the time of writing. The next day, Swiss entrepreneur and Youtuber Samuel Eckert presented a 20-minute summary and explanation of the false-positive issue using an interactive Excel spreadsheet. His video currently boasts over 225,000 views with 15,000 likes. Possibly in response, the German Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn, a banker by training, said in a brief interview contained in a tweet from public TV channel ARD on June 14 that if the COVID-19 prevalence continued to drop and testing was simultaneously expanded (as has been the case in many Western countries since mid-April) into the millions then you would eventually obtain more false-positive than correct-positive results.

Dr. Yaffe addressing the press, 30 July 2020, see full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ed5cZFOrcZQ or view clip at http://gis.blog.ryerson.ca/files/2020/09/Ontario-announces-details_July-30_Trim2.mov
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Canadian News Coverage of #elxn43 – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Maps

Much like many economic, social, health, crime, and environmental data sets, election results have an important geospatial component. For the 2019 federal election, Canada was divided into 338 electoral districts, each of which is represented by a member of parliament. Consequently, thematic maps – usually representing the “first-past-the-post” winning party – are a typical part of news media coverage of the 43rd election. The following examples were found in select Canadian media outlets on the morning after the election.

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Geography – The Secret Sauce of Data Analytics

For GIS Day 2016, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies joined forces with Environics Analytics, “Canada’s premier marketing and analytical services company”. This year’s Environics Analytics User Conference on November 16 attracted 675 data analysts from 350 organizations and featured 16 client presentations, numerous software demos, and one great party!

eauc2016-alliwitz-secret-sauce eauc2016-alliwitz-tweet-tps-ea-geo

The core role of Geography and location in data analytics was emphasized by many presenters. Environics Analytics founder and president, @statslady Jan Kestle, is quoted with identifying “Geography as the secret sauce” that integrates data for advanced analytics. The Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson University received shout-outs and accolades for training the next generation of data analysts through its BA in Geographic Analysis and MSA in Spatial Analysis programs.

eauc2016-ryersongeo-maps4 eauc2016-alliwitz-msa-students3

We joined the Environics Analytics User Conference with a GIS Day-themed display of geovisualization projects from the MSA cartography course and with a 15-year reunion to celebrate the 2001 class of MSA graduates, the first-ever group of students receiving a graduate degree from Ryerson University. Since then, over 300 students have obtained the MSA degree and joined the ranks of data analysts, who shape the regional economy, public services, and environment.

A timeline of all conference-related tweets can be found at https://storify.com/ClausRinner/geography-the-secret-sauce-of-data-analytics. Thank you, Allison Urowitz (@alliwitz), for the pertinent tweets reproduced above.

Geography at Ryerson – Your Social Innovation Powerhouse

Innovation in higher education and scholarly research has always been a hallmark of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Ryerson. Recent faculty and student achievements underline our position as a social innovation powerhouse on campus.

In the competition for “RECODE at Ryerson University” grants, @RyersonGeo faculty are leading three of the eight successful applications. That is 37.5% of these social innovation projects across campus, a proportion even more impressive if you consider the competitive process with eight grants selected among 33 applications, a success rate of only 24%.

oswald_3d-printed-DEM-tweet With her RECODE grant, Dr. Claire Oswald, in collaboration with Dr. Claus Rinner and 3D printing startup company Think To Thing, plans to use “A 3D elevation model of Toronto watersheds to promote citizen science in urban hydrology and water resources”. Undergraduate students from our Geographic Analysis and Environment and Urban Sustainability programs will help with processing geospatial data to create a tangible model of the Don River watershed. The model is to be used for school and community outreach on pressing urban water issues.

shaker_roncesvalles-OSMDr. Richard Shaker received a RECODE grant for “A prototype for reaching sustainability through local business improvement initiatives: Roncesvalles Village”. In collaboration with the Roncesvalles Business Improvement Area in Toronto, Dr. Shaker’s team will develop metrics of sustainability of local restaurants to support sustainable community planning and management.

millward_citytrees-homepageThe goal of Dr. Andrew Millward’s proposal is to advance “The Citytrees Project: a tool of social innovation that engages people to work collectively and make our cities greener and more resilient”. RECODE funding will assist with forming new community partnerships and collecting tree data with GPS in collaboration with the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation.

In addition to the faculty grants, our students were equally active and successful in applying for funding from the RECODE student competition.

Jennifer Fisher, a student in our BA in Environment and Urban Sustainability, received a grant to create “Soul Roots”, an urban agriculture project that employs “alternative farming practices to create large yield crops on a contaminated land site”. Working with Provincial and municipal partners in Toronto’s Parkdale community, the project also aims to demonstrate the social and economic impact of local food production.

Sarah Brigel, another student in the EUS program, is using RECODE funds to develop a pilot for her “Microbe-Hub Campus Compost Initiative”. The project aims to divert all organic waste from the Faculty of Arts’ Jorgenson Hall 14-storey building using a closed-loop vermicomposting system.

Another playing field for social innovation made @RyersonGeo is the Faculty of Arts’ SocialVentures Zone. Of the seven student-led social enterprises currently being incubated in the Zone, two were founded by our students, including Jennifer’s “Soul Roots”.

The other SocialVenturesZone project is Claire Stevenson-Blythe’s “Reciprocity”, an app-based platform to help people with signing up for local environmental volunteer opportunities. Claire’s enterprise is focused on engaging active citizenship and sharing solutions for the sustinability issues of our time.

Geography in its analytic, applied, and urban-focused form practiced at Ryerson is destined to inspire and train future social innovators and sustainability leaders. Stay tuned for more news!


Background on the RECODE at Ryerson University initiative: http://www.ryerson.ca/research/media/archive/2014/1106recode.html

List of student projects in the SocialVentures Zone: http://www.ryerson.ca/svz/projects/index.html