By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press
Ottawa will require federal employees, workers in federally regulated industries and many travellers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, marking a shift in the federal government’s position on vaccine mandates.
The move — which will affect roughly 1.5 million workers and those who opt to travel by air, interprovincial train and cruise — is necessary to protect against more dangerous variants of COVID-19, said Dominic LeBlanc, head of the Privy Council.
“The government of Canada has a large workforce and a large reach to help in the fight against COVID-19. It is both our opportunity but also our duty to lead by example,” LeBlanc told a news conference Friday.
There are close to half a million people who work directly for the federal government, a Crown corporation, the military or the RCMP, and nearly a million more who work in federally regulated industries such as banking and air transportation.
There is no set deadline for when the mandate will come into effect.
“We will take the time needed to get this right, but we will also act very quickly,” LeBlanc said. “We are targeting implementation early this fall, and we will obviously communicate the details as this work unfolds. But this work unfolds immediately.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government will require workers in federally regulated industries to be vaccinated no later than the end of October.
Travellers on commercial airlines, interprovincial trains and cruise ships will also be required to be vaccinated by that date.
There will be exceptions for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or due to other protected grounds.
Some other countries have also introduced limitations on domestic air travel due to the pandemic, though Canada’s proposed rules appear stricter.
Earlier in the week, France and Italy both implemented systems that require people to show special virus passes before travelling by air or participating in some other non-essential activities.
Those passes are granted to anyone who is vaccinated against COVID-19, has recently recovered from the virus or has tested negative in recent days.
Alghabra said Canada’s mandate will help the country recover from the pandemic more quickly.
“Canadians don’t want to go back to lockdowns. Canadians don’t want to go back to travel restrictions. Canadians want to go back to normal as quickly as possible,” he said.
At last count, nearly 82 per cent of Canadians 12 and older had at least one dose of vaccine, while 70 per cent had been fully vaccinated.
The rate of vaccination has slowed in recent weeks, just as infections driven by the contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 have picked up.
The government months ago balked at the idea of vaccine mandates, but LeBlanc said the new landscape changes things.
“This is an evolution of the government’s posture in protecting the health and safety of Canadians since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “We have scientific data but also real-world evidence on how remarkably effective are the vaccines that have been approved for use by Health Canada.”
Unions and industry groups have so far been supportive of the measure.
The Business Council of Canada said the vaccine mandate is “the right thing to do” to stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent further lockdowns.
“We recognize that some people are uncomfortable with vaccine mandates, but extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures,” said Goldy Hyder, president and CEO.
“In addition, today’s announcement underscores the immediate need for a nationally recognized proof of vaccination.”
The government did not say what proof employees and travellers would have to provide in order to go to work or get on a plane.
The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country’s largest air carriers, said it also welcomes a vaccine mandate, though it’s seeking more information about what will be required of the companies.
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada was also on board.
“As the union representing the scientists who approved the COVID-19 vaccines, PIPSC welcomes all efforts to increase vaccination coverage in Canada,” said union head Debi Daviau.
“That includes a vaccine policy in the federal government that makes vaccines more accessible to our members and accommodates legitimate reasons for which an employee may not be vaccinated.”
Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said his union supports the goals of the government’s plan but wants to ensure it respects PSAC members’ legal right to privacy.
The government must also provide accommodations for workers who cannot be vaccinated for reasons protected under human rights legislation, Aylward said in a statement.
“We expect the government to continue consulting with unions on the implementation of their vaccination requirements to safeguard our members’ right to privacy and ensure that their human rights are respected.”
A spokesman for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he encourages everyone who is able to get vaccinated to do so, but Conservatives support Canadians’ right to determine their own health choices.
“We are in a crisis and Canadians expect reasonable measures, such as rapid testing for those who are not vaccinated, to protect Canadians, especially the most vulnerable,” said Mathew Clancy in a statement.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party is in favour of a vaccine requirement, adding that “workers and unions should be involved in any plans for mandatory vaccination.”
LeBlanc wouldn’t say how, precisely, the government would deal with workers who refuse to be vaccinated.
“Those will be cases that will be dealt with individually by the appropriate public service managers,” he said. “But what we’re saying to the federal public service is that this is now a mandatory requirement to go to work in a federal workplace or to work for the Government of Canada.”