Ottawa, ON – Ottawa police have charged a Windsor man with hate-motivated crimes, including intimidating a health worker, in connection with racist anti-vaccine phone messages sent to Ottawa physician Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth.
Police have issued a warrant for the arrest of Louis Mertzelos, 58, of Windsor on hate-motivated charges of harassing communications, harassment by repeated communication, mischief and intimidation of health services.
Kaplan-Myrth confirmed the charges relate to two phone calls she received last month.
The charges are being hailed as an important step amid a worsening climate of anonymous harassment and intimidation against health workers and others, often related to pandemic public health measures, that frequently target race, religion or sex.
It is just the second time a new federal law aimed at protecting health workers has been used since coming into effect in January. The amendments to the Criminal Code create a new intimidation offence to protect health-care workers and people seeking health services.
Kaplan-Myrth called it an important law.
“It is a way of saying that when we do our work, we need to know that somebody has our backs,” she said. “We stepped up, we did all the things that we were asked to do and went above and beyond to really help the community. As a result of that, to be bombarded by death threats, rape threats, anti-Semitism and all the rest of it is just shocking and abhorrent.”
Bernie Farber, who heads the Canadian Anti Hate Network, and has offered advice to Kaplan-Myrth, said the charges by the Ottawa Police Hate and Bias Crime Unit should send a strong message.
“This has been going on now for months. It is not just doctors, it is journalists, advocates, politicians. People feel there is a certain permissibility because nothing has happened. OPS, to their credit, decided that this goes past the bar of acceptability,” he said.
“It has to be a lesson to all those others out there who think it is so easy. That is not going to happen any more. People are going to face charges and possible jail sentences.”
Kaplan-Myrth received the calls that are a focus of the police investigation on Sept. 6 and 7, shortly after she appeared on a TVO news program to talk about the continuing importance of mask wearing and other public health measures. The anonymous caller described the family physician as “unhinged” and let loose a tirade of anti-Semitism against her in each of the calls.
Those are far from the only threats the high-profile Ottawa family doctor and advocate who has helped vaccinate thousands of people through outdoor “Jabapalooza” events has received.
She has also received death threats and even had people show up in person at her Glebe clinic, where the doors are now kept locked and security devices have been installed. Police are investigating other threats, she said.
Kaplan-Myrth said being an advocate is an important part of her medical practice but, like others, she often pays a price for it.
“We can’t stop doing our jobs and advocacy is an important part of our work,” she said.
Kaplan-Myrth said racist attacks, along with anti-science attacks, have ramped up against her colleagues as well during the pandemic.
“People have said it is a brave step to pursue this. I don’t see it as brave, it is just a necessary step for all of us, so that doctors and nurses and politicians and journalists and anybody who is doing the work that we are supposed to do is doing it at least knowing that if people are violent and threatening and racist and antisemitic, that there is some consequence for their actions.”
Dr. Alika Lafontaine, who is president of the Canadian Medical Association, echoed the sentiment that physicians who go to police when they are threatened and harassed are brave, but he said he hopes more begin to do so.
“I admire the bravery of any physician that comes forward.”
He said changes to the Criminal Code were needed because the “frequency and intensity” of harassment against health workers has increased and only a small fraction of incidents are reported, a sign that pre-existing laws “didn’t do the job”. Critics said the amendments were not necessary because it is already illegal to intimidate and threaten people.
The CMA was among organizations that lobbied for the new laws.
Lafontaine said he hopes more physicians begin reporting harassment and going to the police, something he said cases like the one involving Kaplan-Myrth should encourage.
“The less we tolerate this extreme behaviour, the better off we will all be.”
The amendments to the Criminal Code to protect health workers and people seeking access to health services, were part of a Liberal election promise. Under the amendments, intimidating health workers and obstructing access to health services are punishable by up to 10 years in prison, depending on circumstances.
“Health care workers have long faced difficult working conditions, including violence and threats of violence in the workplace. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the federal government said in a statement about the amendments.
Dr. Todd Watkins, associate CEO of the Canadian Medical Protective Association, said physicians and other healthcare providers are reporting increased harassment, which is contributing to their burnout and exhaustion “at an already difficult time.
“We wish to express our abhorrence for violence and harassment of healthcare professionals and our belief that physicians have the right to a safe environment. We are supportive of any legislation that would assist in keeping patients and providers safe so they can deliver care to Canadians.”
He encouraged physicians to contact police if they fear for their safety. The CMPA is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal defence, liability protection, and risk-management education for physicians in Canada.