Joël Lightbound
© Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Joël Lightbound delivered the stunning, scathing assessment Tuesday in Ottawa with the big rigs of the so-called Freedom Convoy just outside the door.
A backbench lawmaker from Justin Trudeau's own caucus is accusing the prime minister of dividing and stigmatizing Canadians by politicizing vaccine mandates and Covid-19 restrictions.

Joël Lightbound delivered the stunning, scathing assessment Tuesday in Ottawa with the big rigs of the so-called Freedom Convoy just outside the door. The convoy protests against Covid measures have grabbed global attention and paralyzed the Canada's capital city for more than a week.

"Both the tone and the policies of my government changed drastically on the eve and during the last election campaign," said Lightbound, who convened a press conference to deliver his message. "A decision was made to wedge, to divide and to stigmatize. I fear that this politicization of the pandemic risks undermining the public's trust in our public health institutions."

Publicly breaking ranks with one's own party on such a major issue is a rarity in Canadian politics, especially when the party is in power.

Lightbound insisted he is not the only member of Trudeau's team who feels, to varying degrees, as he does.

He said he raised his concerns "extremely clearly" with fellow Liberals MPs and with Trudeau. Lightbound added he's hopeful there's room in the party for "dissent," so he can push for change from within caucus.

His concerns trace back to the launch of last summer's election campaign when Trudeau introduced a wedge on Day 1 to highlight the philosophical clash between the vaccinated and the vaccine reluctant. Trudeau hammered at the messaging until he won reelection Sept. 20.

Months later, Lightbound says Canada is seeing negative consequences of the approach.

The criticism presents a major challenge for Trudeau, who is up against increasing public frustration over health measures, attacks from political opponents over his pandemic approach and a protest with global repercussions on Parliament Hill's doorstep.

The convoy has been occupying Ottawa for the past 12 days. The demonstrations started as a movement to oppose Trudeau's policy requiring mandatory vaccinations for truckers who cross the Canadian border from the U.S. The campaign quickly widened into an well-organized, heavily funded crusade to push back against Covid-19 restrictions in general and to condemn Trudeau himself.

The convoy has also attracted extremist elements linked with the far right. The protests have seen the display of racist symbols, such as the Confederate flag and the swastika, and calls by organizers for the resignation of the Trudeau government, which has drawn comparisons to the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington.

The Ottawa demonstrations — which police are struggling to manage — have terrorized locals with incessant horn blasts, raucous rallies and fireworks. The protests have surfaced in other major cities and at border crossings — including the economically vital Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

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The truckers' campaign has also made international headlines and appears to be spawning copycat protests. The evolution is propelling Canada — which has one of the world's highest vaccination rates — into the unlikely position of a vanguard in the global anti-vaccine movement.

Lightbound said he condemns hideous acts and symbols displayed by some demonstrators and that he has no sympathy for far right extremists. He also called for the truckers' occupation of Ottawa to end, so locals can have their lives back.

But Lightbound said he's echoing concerns in recent weeks from hundreds of his constituents. "They're worried that measures which ought to be exceptional and limited in time are being normalized with no end in sight, like vaccine passports, mandates and requirements for travelers," he said.

"They're worried because they feel it is becoming harder and harder to know where public health stops and where politics begins."

Many public health measures are applied and enforced by provincial governments in Canada, but border-related rules, for instance, fall under federal jurisdiction.

Trudeau has become a target because, in many ways, he has set the national tone since the start of the pandemic by strongly advocating for vaccines and restrictions.

Lightbound questioned the science behind the Trudeau government's ongoing Covid measures, especially as other countries with lower vaccination rates start to abandon their restrictions.

He called on the Trudeau government to quickly produce a roadmap with "clear and measurable targets" for when all restrictions will be lifted.

The Liberal MP's move to confront Trudeau over this issue creates a political headache for the prime minister — especially if others follow Lightbound's lead.

Lightbound's own future with the Liberal Party is now in serious doubt. Later Tuesday, he announced he's stepping down from his position as Liberal caucus chair for the province of Quebec.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller took issue with Lightbound's criticisms.

"I've got some problems with it, frankly," Miller told reporters when asked about the remarks. "Saving lives is much more than a political debate. It's a fact and it's something we need to do. It's something we've been relentless in doing over the last two years and if Canadians think that's politicizing the debate I think they need to screw their heads on better."

Comment: Which is why Lightbound has questioned the science behind the Trudeau government's ongoing Covid measures. It's all well and good to attack dissenters because "saving lives is more important," but the idea that the measures are saving any lives is exactly what's being questioned.

During an emergency debate in Parliament on Monday about the Covid-19 protests, the prime minister pushed back on Conservative accusations that his pandemic policies have divided Canadians.

"Canadians chose vaccines, they chose science," Trudeau told the House of Commons in a speech. "This pandemic has sucked for all Canadians. But Canadians know the way to get through it is to continue listening to science, continuing to lean on each other, continuing to be there for each other."

Comment: Many Canadians didn't 'choose' vaccines, they were forced or coerced into taking them, just like the rest of the world.

He acknowledged that people are tired of masks and health restrictions, but assured Canadians that pandemic measures "are not forever."

Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen, who is one of many party members to publicly support the Freedom Convoy, responded to Trudeau's speech by insisting she had never seen the country so divided.

"Does he regret calling people names who didn't take the vaccine?" asked Bergen, who took over as temporary opposition leader last week after Erin O'Toole was ousted by his own caucus. "We are at a crisis point, not only with what's going on out the doors and across the country, but the country overall and so much of it is because of the things that he has said and done."

Conservative MPs applauded Lightbound's decision to call out the government.

"In the context of the pressure exerted by party caucuses in our system, @JoelLightbound has shown immense courage today," Garnett Genuis wrote on Twitter. "We also see that courage is contagious. It's time for more MPs to speak out for unity, common sense, and hope. Things are changing."

Asked Tuesday about having a message similar to Bergen's, Lightbound said: "A broken clock is right, twice a day."