In early January, Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole responded to the news that some high-risk federal inmates would soon be getting vaccinated against COVID-19. He tweeted that “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker”. With this statement, O’Toole was clearly giving a wink and a nudge to his supporters on the far right. 

In addition to being a dog whistle to his far right supporters, O’Toole also seems to not understand how a virus like COVID-19 spreads. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of federal and provincial prisons endanger incarcerated people and prison staff alike. 

The moral outrage over prisoners being treated as human beings does not hold up to the slightest examination. Who are these “criminals” that O’Toole is saying should not be vaccinated, despite their disproportionately high chance of catching COVID-19?  More than half of all people behind bars in Canada are not convicted criminals at all! 54 per cent are still awaiting trial. In Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, and the Yukon 60-66 per cent of all incarcerated people have not been convicted of the crime they’re being charged and held for. 

Of those who are actually convicted, 83 per cent are imprisoned for a non-violent crime, mostly relating to drug charges and property damage. To top it off, 30 per cent of incarcerated people are Indigenous, an outrageous over-representation considering indigenous people make up under five per cent of Canada’s population. Black Canadians are also over-represented. This can only compound on the virus’ already disproportionate effect on racial minorities. 

But convicted or not and no matter the crime, a prison sentence is not a death sentence. The Conservative’s objection to vaccinating prisoners shows that they are willing to be judge and jury and allow COVID-19 to be the executioner. Prisoners are five times more likely to contract the virus than the general population. High-risk individuals should be receiving the vaccine regardless of whether or not they are in prison. To say otherwise is to play the same game as the far right, building up peoples prejudices in order to direct the anger in society against minorities. 

In addition, this also poses a risk to the general population. Correctional officers and other prison staff come into close contact with hundreds of prisoners every day. They are in the same environments, in overcrowded cafeterias and communal dormitories. The difference is that prison staff go home to their families at the end of their shift, and stop for gas, groceries, and necessities along the way. The extremely high rate of spread in prisons can affect the spread in the wider population. The only rationale for his position is to play Trump style politics. 

In the wake of Trump supporters storming Capitol Hill, O’Toole forswore any association with the far-right. However, it was not that long ago that O’Toole was declaring that it was time to “take Canada back”, a distinctly Trumpian slogan, despite the deliberate ambiguity around who Conservatives are supposedly taking Canada back from. At the same time, he has hired “Ontario Proud” founder Jeff Ballingall as part of his campaign team. “Ontario Proud” is a Facebook page and “digital advocacy group” that regularly posts content opposing COVID-related restrictions as well as anti-immigrant rhetoric.   

In a similar move, O’Toole recently ejected far-right MP Derek Sloan from the Conservative Party caucus. While O’Toole justified this by citing Sloan’s acceptance of a $131 donation from a neo-nazi, in the past he has stood behind Sloan and defended him from censure over racist and homophobic remarks. Pulling Sloan’s supporters behind him helped O’Toole win leadership of the Conservative Party. Any attempt to distance himself from Sloan and his supporters is nothing more than sheer opportunism. O’Toole is trying to have his cake and eat it too, to use the politics of the far right without appearing to associate with them.

It’s in this context that the Conservatives are playing the old Tough On Crime card, while trying to paint themselves as the friend of front-line workers for doing so. However, the Conservatives, and Erin O’Toole in particular, are no friends to the working class. Just last month, O’Toole criticized the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for “endangering Canada’s work ethic”. While O’Toole claims to support the everyday hardworking person, he doesn’t support even a very modest emergency support like the CERB when millions are getting laid off. O’Toole’s sudden hypocritical defense of front line workers only comes at the expense of another hard-hit group. 

Save lives! 

Instead of sacrificing prisoners at the altar of COVID-19, and thereby encouraging the spread of the virus, the rational policy would be to immediately release all non-violent offenders. Drop charges on all prisoners awaiting trial for non-violent offenses! Prisons are populated by and large by the poorest and most oppressed. The laws are made by and for the ruling class of society, the owners, the billionaires. O’Toole wants to allow the pandemic to change a prison sentence into a death sentence. In saying so, he shows the far right that he is very much still their man.