Vaccinated or not, on Lasqueti Island, everyone has to get along
The island made headlines recently for its hardline anti-vax community, but there’s more to running a community than fighting over vaccines
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The island made headlines recently for its hardline anti-vax community, but there’s more to running a community than fighting over vaccines
The island made headlines recently for its hardline anti-vax community, but there’s more to running a community than fighting over vaccines
Friday nights at the local pub on Lasqueti Island are always lively, buzzing with Lasquetians of all ages. The pub, a two-storey building just steps away from the ferry dock, doubles as a cafe on the other side of the kitchen, and houses the island’s only hotel on its second floor. Once a week, while the adults enjoy their brews and games of pool, the cafe section also serves as a supervised daycare where kids are plopped down in front of a projector for a movie night.
On a visit to the island in early February, photojournalist Zoë Ducklow and I dined at the pub and witnessed it for ourselves: a full house, with conversations and drinks flowing between tables of people who all knew each other—a scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic times. Here, we overheard other people’s conversations about the pandemic and vaccines, among other things. Mostly, everyone seemed tired of the constant disagreements.
It’s those very disagreements that brought us to Lasqueti Island in the first place. On this mostly isolated island, with a tiny population of 400 people (less in the winter) who came here to live off grid, away from the rest of the world, the global pandemic and its related restrictions have left a tangible divide between those who agree with mask and vaccine mandates, and those who don’t.
Much of this division is relegated to the virtual world, showing up in Facebook posts, comment sections, and a private email forum for Lasquetians. But physical signs of it are scattered across the island: two local newspapers (one more opinionated than the other) distributed at separate establishments; a community hall sitting empty for two years because no one wants to be the one to check people’s vaccine cards; the local post office standing in limbo after the postmistress was placed on leave without pay for being unvaccinated. Below the surface there are signs of simmering discontent, the kind that slowly dissolves friendships and community relations. But there are also stories of unity: neighbours finding ways to communicate, coexist, and work through their differences, because in a community this small, getting along makes life a lot easier.
“It’s an island that’s like a high school, where everybody knows everybody,” Adam Enright said as we sat down at the False Bay Provisions general store/cafe/bakery, just across the street from the hotel/pub.
The conversation didn’t get very far before an employee came over to tell us that though we all had our proof of vaccination, we couldn’t sit inside together because we weren’t part of the same family or household. It was an understandable precaution for a small community business dealing with visitors from a relatively big city in the middle of a pandemic, so we stepped outside and headed to the front to a thatched hut with tables and chairs.
Enright, a care aide who has lived on the island for 19 years, is troubled by the radical views now being expressed by Lasquetians he has known for years. “Old hippies that have been leftists their whole life [are] suddenly voting People's Party of Canada because they don’t like masks,” Enright said. “What the hell is that about?”
Lasqueti Island’s isolated location might have made it harder for the virus to find it—locals say there were barely any COVID-19 cases on the island until the Omicron wave—but the sentiments that paralyzed Ottawa, shut down border crossings, and roiled cities like Victoria throughout February have left their mark in more tangible ways than one would find in cities.
The newspaper we picked up at the cafe was not the same as the one we got at the pub. While the original paper, the Lasqueti Island Local, contains articles about issues like community hall renovations and garbage disposal, the newer publication, Our Isle & Times, focuses on thanking the “trucker” convoy, discussing the attendance of Victoria’s anti-vaccine-mandate protests, and sharing articles with the word “freedom” thrown in many times.
“Thousands of Islanders Attend Freedom Rally in Victoria,” reads a cover story in one issue. It’s continued on page 6 and reveals itself to be an essay about a group of Lasquetians who attended a protest in Victoria. In photos, they’re shown holding signs that say things like “Mandate vegetables and vitamins,” and “May all beings be free of fear.” Sprinkled in are more innocuous stories about topics like gardening tips, one of which is run alongside a photo of a swastika equating vaccine and mask mandates with fascism.
On Lasqueti Island, like in the rest of Canada, the majority of residents are on board with vaccinating and wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the virus. But for a section of the small population, the mandates in place for both are an unacceptable overreach of government authority. This segment, Enright says, has mostly been vocalising their discontent online, in community Facebook groups, and in a moderated email forum most Lasquetians participate in.
That was where one of the first hints of division in Lasqueti manifested itself, when a member of the community created a second moderated email forum after some people felt they were being censored in the main channel. According to Enright, there was no actual censorship; the moderators of the main channel were simply asking people to keep their controversial COVID-19 posts short. “It became these long personal diatribes… but the fringe folks perceived it as being censorship,” he said.
Soon, there was another way Lasquetians with extreme views about the pandemic were making their mark on the community: the same individual who had started the second email forum, a man named Dave Olsen, launched the Our Isle & Times newspaper.
Olsen declined to be interviewed for this article.
Valeria de Rege, an artist who has lived on the island for 36 years, once contributed an article to Our Isle & Times, talking about her journey through fear of the virus and the vaccine. She believes moderators of the main email forum were deleting posts that shared controversial takes, “like vaccines might be harmful or that mask wearing was maybe not effective, or that maybe coronavirus wasn't as deadly.”
The fact that the new newsletter is distributed exclusively at the pub while the original, far more tame paper is found at the cafe and general store gives another clue as to where rules are followed more stringently. Tim Peterson, an Island Trustee and community leader who has lived in Lasqueti for 45 years, says the pub is far more laissez-faire about following regulations than the cafe.
“We're still supposed to be masking on our way until we sit down, and I'm sure you've noticed almost nobody does,” Peterson said. “I've been mocked for walking in there with a mask, so… I have a feeling that probably the pub’s been more negatively affected by people choosing not to go there because of the non-adherence of guidelines.”
In the middle of winter, this pub is also the only eatery on the island open past 5pm, so it’s where we went for dinner on both nights of our stay. Our vaccine passports were checked, and we dined on local fare while the owner regaled us with stories of his days as a Slovenian pilot and his work as a firefighter—and he told us all his opinions about the pandemic.
The virus isn’t that big of a deal, he told us. It’s just the flu. People are being hospitalized because they’re afraid. (We didn’t discuss with him the thousands of people in Canada and millions around the world who had lost their lives or loved ones to COVID-19.)
And while he and his partner were vaccinated, he assured us, the vaccine is not to be trusted. Once while on duty as a firefighter, he explained, he came across a man who had just died in a vehicle accident but an attempt to shock him with a defibrillator yielded no reaction. This was suspicious—people who had died recently would still be warm blooded and react to an electric shock. So, he concluded, the lack of a shock reaction must be some sinister side effect of the vaccine because the victim had been vaccinated two weeks prior.
Our second morning on Lasqueti Island started with coffee at the pub, sipped while watching the trucker convoy continue their occupation of Ottawa on a large projector screen set up at the corner of the establishment. Opposite the bar, several bay windows overlook a patio and offer a landscape view of the ferry dock and False Bay.
Aside from the pub and the cafe, the island has a handful of other venues open to the public: a school, an arts centre, a health centre, a free store, and a community hall that Lasquetians describe as the heart of their community. Since the pandemic, however, activities at the arts centre have been scaled back to a minimum and the community hall has been shut down altogether.
“This space has been empty for two years but in previous times, you would see this whole place packed with basically the whole island,” Morgan Maher, who has been living in Lasqueti for five years, said as we walked through the large, vacant building. “That's rednecks, to vintage hippies, to New Age hippies, to draft dodgers, to loggers, to tree huggers.” He described vibrant parties with food and live music. It’s easy to visualize people milling about in the wide open auditorium while performers play their music on stage, the smell of BBQ wafting in from the open-air cooking station outside, and sounds of children playing in the makeshift treehouse-like structures in the backyard. According to Maher, political differences tended to fade away at these gatherings.
One of the reasons for closing the community hall was that it is undergoing renovations. The other is that none of the board members who run the hall wanted to be responsible for enforcing the BC Vaccine Card program for events.
“There was an acknowledgement that under law, if something was not being done properly, it was actually the organization that would be at fault,” said Peterson, a member of the board. “None of us on the executive board wanted to go to someone's event and be the person looking to see the QR codes and essentially enforcing the guidelines.”
This unwillingness to enforce the vaccine card program has deprived the community of its main gathering space; it’s also a direct impact of an increasingly vocal group that demands an end to mandates.
While the “freedom” convoy in Ottawa awakened the nation to the undercurrents of anger and extremist views present in our societies, Lasquetians in the last year have contended with their own, smaller protests and stand-offs that have alerted them to fundamentally differing views, even among people they’ve known for years.
One day, in late June 2021, a small group of about six people planted themselves next to the entrance of the health centre, handing out fliers to all who entered. This was one of the few designated clinic days on which COVID-19 vaccines were to be administered, and the fliers, according to Peterson, contained extreme verbiage equating vaccinations to war crimes—an early precursor to anti-vaccine protests at hospitals across Canada that were to take place later in the fall.
“Three times I asked them to move away from the door,” Peterson said. “They didn’t want to leave so we ended up having a couple of people hang out and try and keep order at that doorway… We escorted some people through the back door of the clinic.” The whole thing reminded him of how anti-abortion activists mount their protests in front of reproductive health facilities.
Maher, who advocates against the vaccine mandate but got vaccinated in order to visit his father in long-term care, agrees that the clinic protest was unacceptable.
“To do that, to protest at hospitals and nurses, is a horrible thing to do,” Maher said. “Plus, anyone who's going to get vaccinated on that day [has] already made up their mind. They're not going to change their mind because you're there intimidating them.”
No protesters were present at another vaccine clinic that took place on Feb. 5.
For Maher, and for many others, the more contentious issue, arising out of vaccine mandates and a lack of reliable information, is the Canada Post incident in early December 2021. Canada Post decided to shut down the local post office after the postmistress and assistant postmistress made their decision to stay unvaccinated, after a mandate was introduced that requires all federal workers—including postal employees—to get vaccinated as a condition of employment. Employees were supposed to submit their vaccination status by Nov. 27, 2021. As a result of their choice to stay unvaccinated, the postmistress and assistant postmistress were placed on leave without pay.
Days later, the Crown corporation resumed postal service on the island three days a week, but until Feb. 11 when the post office reopened, islanders still had to travel to the Parksville post office to pick up and send any packages. The issue has caused significant frustration for many who rely on the postal service for medicines and other supplies. For some, regular trips to Parksville are expensive, cumbersome affairs involving ferry fare and a ride in and out of town.
“There's certainly a segment of people that are upset about Canada Post not communicating with the community leading up to the shutdown of the post office,” Peterson said. “There's some people that were frustrated at the workers who knew long before any of us did that this was coming.”
The issue was compounded by media coverage from a Victoria news station that announced that the Lasqueti Island postmistress had locked up the post office and wouldn’t allow people to get their mail. Maher describes the coverage as “hit-and-run” reporting where not all the facts were presented with proper context, leading to more erosion of trust in traditional media.
“Ricocheting off that article is the idea that the postmaster was holding the mail hostage, and that was as far from the truth as you could get,” Maher said. The postmistress is a friend who he describes as a gentle, humble person who was trying to find a solution to the issue without getting vaccinated. While Maher personally believes that protests and petitions will get us nowhere—he cites Fairy Creek as an example of how protesting didn’t stop the trees from being cut down and the injunction from returning—he still created a petition, calling it more of a “tool of unity.” He says it was signed by 300 out of the 400 people who live on Lasqueti. The purpose is to allow unvaccinated Canada Post employees to return to work with the option to conduct regular rapid tests—something the postmistress had agreed to do before the vaccine mandate kicked in.
Both he and de Rege see vaccine mandates for postal workers as an unnecessary overstep. “It makes no sense at all that our post office employees would need a vaccine, even if the vaccines were effective. People don't even go [inside] the post office,” de Rege said.
The Canada Post incident solidified Maher’s stance on mandates being more harmful than not. “The postmaster is not vaccinated, but she respected the safety of the community,” he said. “Everything was always done outside and she was fully on board to do rapid testing twice a week. With the mandates, I think you really create turmoil.”
In an email to Capital Daily, Maher said the postmistress was rehired by Canada Post on Feb. 11 when the post office reopened. “I'm not sure [of] all the details or how or why, but it was an unexpected decision,” Maher wrote.
Canada Post would not comment on personnel status, but in an emailed response to Capital Daily, a spokesperson said all employees had a “period of extensive communication” about the vaccine mandate starting Oct. 29; the mandate itself kicked in on Nov. 27. “Employees who did not comply with the practice were placed on leave without pay as of November 27,” reads the statement. They did not comment on whether there are any plans to rehire them.
Lasquetians like Maher, de Rege, Peterson, and Enright maintain that despite occasional outbursts, the bulk of conflicts and arguments still take place online. But in a small community where everyone knows everyone, taking a hard stance can mean eroding interpersonal relationships.
Sitting in a draughty, circular room inside the Arts Centre, surrounded by photos, collages, artwork, and various paraphernalia, de Rege tells us about some relationships that have started to quietly dissolve.
“I was a part of this women’s group and [while] I was away [in Toronto] there was some solstice gathering and one woman who was unvaccinated was excluded,” de Rege said. “Now I just don’t want to be part of that group anymore. I can’t associate with people that enforce these mandates.”
De Rege herself has a spiritual practice and a deep belief in herbal medicine. None of her children are vaccinated against COVID-19 and other illnesses as a result of her own research into vaccines, she says.
“I think that any vaccine that has had as many adverse reactions as these ones is not kept on the market, and they don't even work so I don't get why they’re pushed the way they are,” de Rege said about the COVID-19 vaccines, making sure to add that she doesn’t want to delve too far into conspiracy theories—these are just the facts, according to her. Among the handful of COVID-19 cases she knows about on Lasqueti Island, she says the severity of illness did not differ much between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
In BC, the data shows as of Feb. 5, COVID-19 vaccines have caused adverse reactions in 0.05% of people who’ve gotten vaccinated, and about 92% of these adverse reactions are non-serious. A Jan. 28 data presentation from the provincial ministry of health shows the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 is 12 times higher for unvaccinated people who contract the virus, while their risk of death is 40 times more than vaccinated people.
De Rege did end up getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the end of November, despite her strong beliefs, in order to be able to visit family members in Toronto and support them through their health crises. Once in Toronto, both she and her sister contracted the virus.
Eventually, she plans on having a conversation with the friend who didn’t invite an unvaccinated peer to her solstice gathering. “We don’t have to agree but I have to just let her know how I feel,” she said. “I'm making choices about who I spend my time with.”
On the southern tip of Lasqueti Island lies a sprawling, rugged coastline, most of which is a protected nature conservancy. As we traversed through part of Squitty Bay Provincial Park with Maher, I recalled a sign attached to a fence surrounding the park, banning sheep from grazing in the area. But all across the cliffs and barren but breathtaking terrain lay evidence that the island’s countless sure-footed feral sheep had made the same hike.
The island’s stray animals ignore the rules while its people grapple with ever-changing ones dictated by a virus that some still view as less than catastrophic. Across the various perspectives and spectrums of opinion we came across, one common philosophy stood out: no matter where you stand, it’s too late to change anyone else’s mind.
“I think it's highly unlikely that anyone who's vaccinated is going to go, ‘I had it all wrong and Fauci is a deep-state mole,’” Peterson said. “It's also not likely that a lot of people who have been anti-vax are going to suddenly go, ‘Hey, you know what, I was wrong.’ I think we're past that.”
Instead, people are more focused on picking their battles and, in many situations, agreeing to disagree for the sake of coexistence. The stakes are higher and everyone must get along or potentially risk becoming a social pariah and perhaps find themselves deprived of service from the island’s only mechanic, or short of gas if they annoy the gas station employees.
In some rare cases, when lines are crossed, people do speak up. Peterson got into a comment section debate recently with someone who believed comparing pandemic restrictions to the Holocaust was appropriate. “I don't think that many people that throw those terms around have read deeply about that time in history and understand how the comparison isn't apt,” Peterson said. “I just try to explain that in a way that's simple and understandable. I try not to be pompous and I try not to be accusatory.”
These are communication tactics endorsed by Dr. Karin Tamerius, a US-based political psychologist and co-author of a New York Times article on how to talk to unvaccinated friends. She went back to political work in 2016 after Donald Trump was elected president, marking a pronounced shift towards authoritarian-style leadership in the superpower. Instead of engaging in conventional protests, Tamerius founded Smart Politics, a platform aimed at helping people have conversations with their conservative friends and relatives.
“What doesn’t help is making [unvaccinated people] feel bad about themselves or dismissing their anxieties and concerns or questioning their intelligence, or implying that they don’t care about other people,” she said. “In that case, and even with people who are very much adamantly opposed to getting vaccinated, there is always room for change.”
Almost every time, in Lasqueti, a successful debate seems to depend on knowing the person they’re talking to and having a relationship with them beforehand. In this case, Peterson said the individual he was debating with eventually agreed that Holocaust comparisons were not okay, and that the key to reaching this conclusion was the fact that the two had known each other well enough to be willing to engage in a respectful back-and-forth conversation.
In another incident, Peterson says he was having a disagreement with someone online when the person called him up, they talked for an hour over the phone, and in the end both agreed to delete all of their comments.
“It'd be different if it was someone I didn't know or someone I didn't like but this is a friend,” he said. “What we felt was most important… was to be able to have discussion without making it personal and being attacking.”
When people have existing relationships, he says, there’s a potential for loss and a potential gain from working through disagreements. Knowing someone before a disagreement also means people have a deep understanding of each others’ qualities as well as their perceived shortcomings. “I don't see that kind of rapprochement happening between people that don't really know each other,” Peterson said.
Tamerius agrees, to an extent, saying people who already know each other are at an advantage, while strangers likely have to work harder to establish trust with the individual they disagree with.
This trust is much harder to achieve with online, text-based conversations. Even in a small community like Lasqueti where everyone knows everyone in person and discussions online aren’t anonymous, people fall prey to a phenomenon Tamerius explains is currently being studied. She references a book, “Breaking the Social Media Prism” by Chris Bail, and its findings that show even moderate people are compelled to take more extreme, polarized positions when they’re talking on social media. “In that environment, you have to be on one side or the other, so you're risking something socially by voicing your opinion,” she said.
For de Rege and Maher, the key to overcoming division is for neighbours to come together in person frequently and engage in activities like building a garden, building a house, and through those activities, create stronger relationships. “Even at the height of [the pandemic]... we had a work party to put up a fence on our new land and people came and we still got to hang out with people,” de Rege said. Over the past two years, she says the community has come together for various outdoor gatherings, including art festivals and dance parties, even in the winter months.
When asked how she perceives her relationships with those who post extreme views online—like comparing the pandemic to the Holocaust—de Rege says she has to remind herself about their other qualities.
“One of these people came to my work party,” she said. “Sometimes I think, ‘How do I even tolerate people that have these views?’ And [then I remember] there’s more than one aspect to a person. I just feel like everybody’s got some spark of goodness in them.”
Though Lasquetians seem to have given up on changing people’s minds, experts like Tamerius disagree with the idea that it’s too late to convince more people to get vaccinated. “A lot of times, what we find is that people aren't totally opposed to vaccination,” she said. “Rather, they are still in the process of considering, so we put them in the vaccine hesitant category.”
According to Statistics Canada, results from the Canadian Community Health Survey from Sept. 1 to Dec. 12, 2020 show 81.4% of British Columbians were willing to get vaccinated. Across Canada, “the most common reasons were lack of confidence in the safety of the vaccine (54.2%) and concerns about its risks and side effects (51.7%).” The data shows Tamerius is not wrong: over the past week in BC, 3,270 people aged 12 and over got their first dose of vaccine. In the past month, 30,052 people got their first dose.
On the other hand, it’s too late at the political level to take any broad steps to minimize the division that has been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Tamerius, but effective communication is one thing elected officials across the board have failed at.
The use of the word “mandate,” for example, rather than verbiage that makes it clear that vaccine card programs offer a choice between getting vaccinated or being barred from non-essential services, is problematic. “It's not like anyone has come and said you absolutely have to get a vaccine or go to jail,” Tamerius said. “In my mind, that is a mandate.”
The measures themselves, no matter what they’re called, have been one effective way of getting more people vaccinated than would otherwise. The other components, at least for the Lasquetians we encountered, are distance and family ties.
Maher, who says he’s not a big fan of pharmaceuticals, chose to get vaccinated in order to be allowed to see his father who lives in a long-term care facility in Calgary. “For me, it’s an easy choice,” he said. “I care more about my family.” The same went for de Rege, who got vaccinated when she needed it to travel to Toronto and see family.
When the vaccines first became available, de Rege says one of her friends who got the shot encouraged her to, “just get it over with,” at first. The friend knew de Rege well enough to know she wouldn’t be inclined to get vaccinated, though, and decided not to push the subject.
Eventually, once travel requirements and family ties pushed de Rege to get the Johnson & Johnson jab, it was a major ordeal—one that involved anger and tears from family members when she announced her decision. “I really did not want it in my body… my kids were so upset,” she said. When she made her way to the vaccine clinic, wracked with fear, it was that same vaccinated friend who held her hand through it all.
Like de Rege’s friend, many Lasquetians have adopted an “agree to disagree” stance in order to keep the peace. Some, like Peterson, are confident that once the pandemic is over, the division will be too. Others, like Enright, are more skeptical about the future.
“My main concern is that this virus is going to leave, but this radicalization is not,” he said.