How disagreements over vaccination and COVID-19 have ripped apart these Alberta families

Calgary

Differing opinions on COVID-19 and vaccines have caused a wedge for some families in Alberta, and some say they are unsure it's something they will ever be able to repair.

Alberta residents, from left, Danielle Barnsley, Chanse Mackinnon and Jasmine Lee Boutin say their families have changed because of disagreements over COVID-19 and vaccination.(Submitted by Danielle Barnsley, Chanse Mackinnon and Jasmine Lee Boutin)

As Thanksgiving approaches, some families will be sharing their love for one another by sitting down for dinner — or perhaps a physically distanced gathering, a FaceTime call, maybe dropping off food.

But the same can't be said for all — some family members may not be speaking to each other this holiday season.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started a year and a half ago, it's had lasting impacts on businesses, the health-care system and relationships.

The question of whether some industries will survive or be the same post-pandemic is also true for some families.

CBC News reached out to some Calgarians about whether differing opinions on COVID-19 and vaccines have weighed heavily on their relationships.

After speaking with a variety of sources, one thing is certain: A lot of these relationships might not be in a good place once the pandemic is over.

Jasmine Lee Boutin, a 46-year-old living in Westlock, Alta., says both she and her mother are vaccinated against COVID-19, while two of her adult daughters are not.

But her main worry is for her grandchildren, who are all under the age of 10.

"There's been a lot of arguments and fights over trying to get them to realize the importance of being vaccinated, not only for themselves but for their children. Trying to get them to understand the possibility that they could pass away, leaving their children without parents," she said.

Nothing's gotten through to them, and Boutin says it's now affected her relationship with her daughters and they rarely get together.

"We don't have the barbecues. We don't have Christmas. We don't do birthdays. We do nothing other than for myself and my mom."

And while she is frustrated with their decisions, it's rooted in worry for their well-being.

"In the last 18 months, I've worried, I think more than I ever have, because I don't know if I'm going to get that call that they're in the hospital with COVID," Boutin said. "And it might be the last time I see them."

Conspiracy theories and misinformation

Danielle Barnsley, a mother of two from Leduc, Alta., says she doesn't speak to her parents anymore due to their beliefs around COVID-19 and refusal to get vaccinated.

She says her parents, who are in their 60s, fell victim to conspiracy theories and misinformation about the disease.

"My mother very particularly got into more racist beliefs about where COVID-19 came from and why it was being spread, and that it was actually just a hoax," Barnsley said.

"Our conversations became really, really strained because there was like an overarching anger when I would challenge some of their beliefs with actual fact."

The arguments became too much for Barnsley, leading her to cut off contact a few months ago for her mental health.

"There's relief, in some ways, because it's exhausting fighting against conspiracy…. I don't know that everybody has the fortitude to continue talking when it's just blatant misinformation that they're only willing to accept."

Looking toward the future, Barnsley says she's unsure whether she will ever have a relationship with her parents.

"One of the things that I'm learning with this pandemic is that we aren't going back to the way things used to be, and I think it's going to impact family relationships," she said.

"When you see the worst somebody has to offer and how far gone they go, how do you come back from that?"

'I'm adamant that I don't want the vaccine'

Chanse Mackinnon, a 25-year-old from Calgary, says he doesn't have plans to get vaccinated.

"I'm adamant that I don't want the vaccine. I feel that to a degree, the science is there to prove your natural immunity," he said, adding that he had COVID-19 last December.

Health experts and government officials, such as Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping, have refuted similar claims. Copping told a news conference last week that while getting infected with COVID-19 gives some "natural immunity," there's uncertainty as to how long it lasts and that immunization provides greater protection.

Mackinnon says his choice to stay unvaccinated has led to some heated arguments with his sister, who is vaccinated and has three children at home under the age of 13.

"She still was reluctant to talk to me and have me over. And that was quite frustrating to have to deal with your own family not wanting to even see you."

While the two siblings still talk on the phone, their relationship has changed.

"It puts a wedge in the sense that I feel like we don't talk the same as we used to…. Before all of this, I felt completely comfortable when I could talk to her and say anything I wanted to," Mackinnon said.

"Now when I'm around … I feel like I have to really watch what I'm saying."

He says he's hopeful that once this all blows over, COVID-19 and vaccines won't be as hot of a topic anymore, but sometimes he has his doubts he'll see his sister's family again.

"I got three nieces and nephews that are all grown up and I was very involved in their life before, and I feel like now it's kind of dropped out," he said.

Mackinnon says it's a situation he never thought would happen within his family.

"We've always had our small differences in terms of like politics and like maybe a little bit of religious views," he said.

"But whether you're vaxxed or not, I don't think that it should be wedging families like it does."

Psychologist weighs in

Joshua Madsen, a senior psychology instructor at the University of Calgary, says while the pandemic has been a silver lining and led to more time spent together for some households, it's led to isolation for others.

"The pandemic has probably impacted vulnerable unions more. It has just created additional stressors, or brought into full-release difficulties that were already there in that relationship."

Madsen compares it to the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 and the threat it caused to family unity.

Joshua Madsen, a senior psychology instructor at the University of Calgary, says setting boundaries with family members may help relationships last throughout the pandemic.(Submitted by Joshua Madsen)

"It's no longer about you being a Republican and me being a Democrat," he said about the former U.S. president's rise.

"It almost revises my view of you, that you could stand behind this person who has said these things about immigrants, women."

Madsen says it's a similar case with polarizing viewpoints around vaccines and COVID-19.

"I'm not just lukewarm on vaccination, you know. I'm going to get it because I believe in the science and I believe this is the best thing to keep me safe. And I think it's the best thing to do to keep my community safe," he said.

Having someone you love oppose these views can create "distress tolerance," which the psychologist describes as a situation when you can't change the way that you or the other person thinks about a situation.

"Part of this distress tolerance is: Can I give up that fight and can I cultivate goodwill in this relationship? Can I extract from it? You know what I can enjoy from it, so can I stay close to this person?"

Five years from now, when COVID-19 may be in the rearview mirror, Madsen says it's hard to say whether these relationships will be fixed.

"Every family situation is different. But I think we're all under, around the world, similar pressures — including family tensions — for a number of reasons during the pandemic. And, you know, with the advent of the vaccine, here's a new opportunity for attention or risks in families, which is really sad."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalie Valleau is a journalist with CBC News. She grew up in Okotoks, Alta., and completed her undergrad at Mount Royal University and Masters of Journalism and Communications at Western University.

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