Alberta premier apologizes for comparing plight of unvaccinated to stigma faced by 1980s AIDS patients

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney apologized Wednesday for comparing the treatment of unvaccinated people to the stigma faced by HIV/AIDS patients during the 1980s.

Kenney drew the comparison Tuesday during a news conference where he announced Alberta’s plan to immediately start phasing out COVID-19 public health restrictions, including the vaccine passport system.

The premier’s comments quickly drew backlash online, including from the Opposition NDP and advocates for the LGBTQ community.

Kenney’s words brought new attention to his controversial political history with the gay community, including his attempts to deny hospital visitation rights to gay couples during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.

While answering a reporter’s question Tuesday, Kenney said the debate around immunizations and COVID-19 mandates is causing deep divisions among Albertans.

Unvaccinated people are being treated like they are “somehow unclean,” he said.

“Everybody should avail themselves of the protection of safe and effective vaccines, and that the choice not to get vaccinated is not just a personal choice — it does have social consequences.

“But it’s never OK to treat people like that, to stigmatize people in that way. In a way, it kind of reminds me of the attitudes that circulated in North America in the mid-1980s about people with HIV/AIDS — that there’s this notion that they had to be kind of distanced, for health reasons.”

On Wednesday morning, Kenney issued an apology on Twitter, describing his comments as an “inappropriate analogy.”

The premier repeated his apology during an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“That was a wrong analogy to make, and I apologize for having done so,” Kenney said.

“It’s one of the pitfalls of improvising an analogy. I shouldn’t have done that.”

‘An irrational fear’

In the interview with CBC, Kenney again voiced his concerns about divisions around vaccination. He said unimmunized people are often feared and stigmatized.

“I think the point I was trying to make, and did so inappropriately, was that I’ve heard people saying they don’t want to be in a restaurant or business with somebody who isn’t vaccinated,” he said.

It’s very problematic if we start, as a society, to accept the idea that we’re unsafe being in the presence of people who are unvaccinated.– Jason Kenney

“They’re afraid of that. And I think that’s an irrational fear. It’s a phobia which leads to stigmatization and I don’t think that’s healthy in a society like ours.

“The reality is that with the transmissibility of the current variant, plus the waning protectiveness of vaccines against infection or transmission, that vaccinated people are almost as likely to transmit the virus as unvaccinated people.

“It’s very problematic if we start, as a society, to accept the idea that we’re unsafe being in the presence of people who are unvaccinated.”

8:07Jason Kenney covid plan

Premier Jason Kenney joins us to talk about the province’s timeline to remove ALL public health measures. 8:07

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley had called for an apology on Twitter on Tuesday evening.

NDP MLA Janis Irwin, the Opposition critic for LGBTQ2S+ and women’s issues, also condemned Kenney’s comments Tuesday, characterizing them as hypocritical.  

“Don’t you dare bring up AIDS in your COVID comments … and pretend you’re some sort of human rights defender. We know your record on that,” Irwin wrote on Twitter. “You fought to keep gay people from visiting their dying partners in hospital. Stop.”

Irwin and others who criticized the comments pointed to Kenney’s role in attempting to overturn a law extending hospital visitation rights to gay couples during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.

A recording of Kenney from the 1980s surfaced in 2018. In the recording, Kenney touted his role in organizing a petition calling for a referendum to repeal the city ordinance extending recognition rights of heterosexual couples, such as hospital visitation, to same-sex couples.

The ordinance was defeated by a narrow margin in a referendum.

Kenney has since said he regrets those comments and that this his political record shows he supports domestic partner arrangements and benefits for couples regardless of sexual orientation. 

Former Edmonton city councillor Michael Phair, one of the founders of the AIDS Network of Edmonton, said the premier needs to take concrete action to make amends for the comments he made Tuesday.

Phair, who has have been active for over 25 years with Edmonton’s LGBTQ community, said Kenney’s comparison was alarming and harmful in the way it ignored years of fear and tragedy caused by the AIDS epidemic.

The comments were especially problematic due to Kenney’s political history, Phair said. 

He said people who lived and died with AIDS did not have a choice in their fate, and endured years with extremely limited medical care while being silenced and ostracized by cruel stigma.

He said many patients he knew in Edmonton died before anyone even knew what AIDS was.

“It’s quite startling and shocking. And I think it’s just totally inappropriate because the situation is so different,” Phair said. 

“You know, we’re dealing with a very privileged group of people who have all kinds of resources that are coming from government … and that are not discriminated against at all in any fashion.

“In fact, I think it’s the opposite of that.”

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