Ontario professor on paid leave after refusing to get vaccinated or wear a mask

‘As Canadians, as rational, autonomous people, my view is that we have a right to decide what goes into our body, even if we have the worst reasons for it’

Author of the article:Tyler Dawson

Publishing date:Sep 09, 2021  

Julie Ponesse in a video she posted about her decision not to get vaccinated.
Julie Ponesse in a video she posted about her decision not to get vaccinated. PHOTO BY JULIE PONESSE / INSTAGRAM

A philosophy professor at a college affiliated with the University of Western Ontario says she has been put on paid leave and is unable to teach students because of her refusal to get vaccinated, which violates the school’s COVID-19 policy.

But the high-profile dispute puts into focus an issue which is likely to face many of the estimated 3.7 million people in Canada who are vaccine hesitant or outright refuse to take a shot — what can employers demand of employees in these circumstances, and what might employees have to submit to.

Howard Levitt, a Toronto employment lawyer with Levitt Sheikh, says exemptions based on religion or medical issues, under Ontario’s human rights code, are very limited. Collective agreements, in unionized scenarios, may have a clause on such an issue, Levitt said, but generally speaking, there is not much to prevent or reject the imposition of such policies.

“People have beliefs, personal beliefs, and personal ethics about many, many things, but if they collide with the employer’s rules and policies, you’ve got to basically leave them at the door if you want to work for that employer,” Levitt said.

Huron requires mandatory vaccination on campus, except for people who have received an exemption, either for medical reasons, or creed or religion. In those cases, people must be tested twice weekly.

“There is no testing option for those who choose not to be vaccinated,” a notice on the Huron website says. “Those without proof of vaccination or an exemption will not be permitted on campus.”

On Tuesday, Ponesse emailed her department head to inform him that she would not get a vaccine, not upload proof of vaccination, not wear a mask while teaching or submit to testing to prove she’s COVID free.

“It was within, I think, half an hour of sending that email that I received an email from my dean stating that I would be dismissed and put on temporary paid leave,” Ponesse said.

The email, which the National Post has seen, tells Ponesse she “will be placed on a temporary paid leave and you will not be allowed to attend campus.” Even if she were to get an exemption, the email says, she would have to get rapid testing and wear a mask, which she has refused to do.

Ponesse said she may qualify for an exemption, but her objection is to the mandate itself, and seeking an exemption “acquiesces to the mandate in some sense.”

“I want to be very clear in rejecting it in principle, I don’t think we ever should have been in the place where we’re looking at the situation of mandates, so I’m not just seeking an exemption to one, I’m challenging the very foundation of the idea,” Ponesse said.

However, Ponesse has also made questionable claims about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. In a video posted online, she calls the vaccines “experimental.”

Health authorities in Canada, and many other countries, approved the vaccines for emergency use after confirming their safety and efficacy. Almost three quarters of Canadians have received one dose of an approved vaccine — Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca — and more than 67 per cent are fully vaccinated. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in August 2021.

Preliminary studies have found that the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are about 90 per cent effective against COVID-19 and the vast majority of cases are now among the unvaccinated.

Many universities and businesses across Canada have been grappling with some sort of vaccination mandate and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that all federal public service employees, and those in federally regulated transportation sectors, must get vaccinated. Provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, have announced a vaccine passport system.

Bruce Anderson, chair of Abacus Data, reported this week that of Canada’s adult population of 29.5 million people, seven per cent (two million) were vaccine hesitant and six per cent (1.77 million) would not take the vaccine no matter how much they were pressured.

My view is that we have a right to decide what goes into our body, even if we have the worst reasons for it

Drew Davidson, a spokesman for Huron, wrote in an email that the deadline for proof of vaccination was Tuesday. If people were awaiting an exemption request or a second dose, they had to provide proof of twice-weekly negative rapid antigen tests, Davidson said.

“While I can’t comment on individual HR matters, I can confirm to you that at this time, no one at Huron has been dismissed as a result of this policy,” Davidson wrote.

Ponesse said she has since asked for more information about what her stance means for her future at Huron, and, if it comes to it, what the terms of her termination might be. She also said she’s attempted to enlist the help of the Huron University College Faculty Association, but said many unions have been supportive of vaccine mandates in the first place. (The union did not respond to the National Post’s request for comment before deadline.)

Over the past few months, Ponesse has appeared on right-wing blogs and podcasts, including Maxime Bernier’s YouTube show.

The Canadian COVID Care Alliance, an organization that expresses skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines and public-health measures used to combat the pandemic, has been promoting a video of Ponesse explaining her decision not to get vaccinated. The group suggests stocking up on ivermectin — an anti-parasite medication — should you get COVID, which is not a recommended treatment for the novel coronavirus.

Ponesse says she had first wrote to the dean expressing her concerns about the university’s vaccine mandate several weeks ago.

“I am one of the only ethicists, and potentially the only person with a background in medical ethics at my college, and I would have expected my chair, who’s also a philosopher, and then also members of the administration, to at the very least engage with me, to express some curiosity, to invite more comment from the person who is hired to teach the very subject that we are engaged in right now,” she said.

While she says she has concerns about the vaccines themselves — which have been tested and studied extensively and approved for use by governments around the world — she also has ethical concerns about policies that coerce compliance.

“As Canadians, as rational, autonomous people, my view is that we have a right to decide what goes into our body, even if we have the worst reasons for it,” Ponesse said.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: