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My friend joined the vaccine exodus, but I still can’t wait to welcome her back

My negative views about anti-vaxxers were put to the test this fall when one of my closest friends moved her family from Simcoe, Ont., to Florida to escape Canada’s widening array of vaccine mandates.

Lisa (not her real name) and I went to university together. She is an intelligent and generous friend. We have debated global affairs, careers and raising children. We have shared joys, hopes and tears. 

I knew Lisa had questions about vaccine health risks. But I was stunned to learn that when the federal government announced it would require vaccines for air travel, Lisa resigned from her management job, pulled her children out of school and university and, together with her husband, left Ontario for an uncertain future south of the border.

She had become convinced that vaccines could cause infertility and long-term risks, and that Ivermectin will keep us safe from COVID-19.

Lisa is paying a high price to avoid a life in Canada with masks and compulsory vaccinations that she insists put health at more risk than COVID-19. She is now paying rent in Florida that she can’t afford while her Ontario home sits empty. Her husband cannot work legally in the United States. Her children had to leave their friends and are missing important months of high school and university.

Lisa and her family are not alone. I have connected with other “vaccine evacuees” to try to understand their decisions to leave comfortable lives in Canada for an uncertain future in the U.S. because of their distrust of modern science.

Many anti-vaxxers appear to be genuinely convinced that vaccines are harmful for everyone.

Many are unconventional folks, fitting the anti-vaxxer stereotype. Ty Nicholson, who has organized anti-vaccine rallies in Barrie, would not speak to me unless I swore I believed in Jesus Christ and did not vote for Justin Trudeau.

A real-estate development in the Dominican Republic called Libera El Norte, which describes itself as “a gated safe-haven community of freedom-loving families who have relocated” to the Caribbean, did not return my requests for information. Its website features a picture of Nicholson. 

Some of the 1,800 members of a Facebook group that calls itself “Conservative Canadians in Florida” who “appreciate low taxes and freedoms” taunted me when I sent a message asking if anyone would speak to me for an article for the Canadian media. “You had me at ‘article’ and lost me at ‘media,’” wrote Christine LaKirky.

One member of the group, Lauren Kilian, did agree to speak with me. Until a few months ago, the mother of three and her husband owned a chiropractic business in Vancouver that struggled due to COVID-19 restrictions. They also started a fitness business that was required to ask for vaccine passes. After losing their fourth baby in October, at 35 weeks gestation, they sold everything in Vancouver and moved to Naples, Fla.

Committed to natural health, the family found the pressure to be vaccinated in Canada unbearable, according to Kilian. “This has pulled my family apart,” she says. “I really miss my friends back home … But everywhere I go here, people think like us.”

I once thought that all anti-vaxxers were selfish, putting their own “freedom” ahead of the good of society. And perhaps some are.

Julia, another friend who does not want her full name used, says her adult daughter’s choice not to get vaccinated really angers her. “She is not thinking about the broader good at all,” says Julia. “She is just thinking about herself.”

But many anti-vaxxers appear to be genuinely convinced that vaccines are harmful for everyone. My friend Lisa was angry and scared when her parents received their vaccines in northern Ontario last June. She says she still fears for their safety.

Most of us know someone who is not vaccinated and whom we have therefore avoided seeing over this past year. Julia says that much as she loves her daughter and wants to see her, she finds every visit stressful: “It’s a bit of a roll of the dice, but I (need to) get over the fear of it.”

As our governments discuss relaxing vaccine mandates and we imagine living normal lives again, I hope we can each take time to mend fractures in our families and communities. The health of our society should be our highest priority, and we can’t be healthy if we bear grudges.

I was unable to reach Lisa for another conversation before submitting this article. She was unwell for several days. I hope that if she had COVID-19, she has recovered fully. If so, she may qualify for a medical certificate of immunity and be ready to return home.

I want her to be safe in Canada, and I can’t wait to welcome her back.

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Katharine Lake Berz

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Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant, writer and a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto.

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