Feds make vaccines mandatory for public servants, domestic travellers

“Core” federal public servants will have to attest to being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 29 or face being put on leave without pay by Nov. 15. And, anyone who wants to board a plane or train in Canada will have to prove they’re vaccinated by Oct. 30 with “limited exemptions,” the federal government has announced.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland outlined the details of the new COVID-19 vaccine mandates on Wednesday.

“This is about keeping people safe on the job and in our communities,” Trudeau said. “If you’ve done the right thing and gotten vaccinated, you deserve the freedom to be safe from COVID-19, to have your kids safe from COVID, to get back to the things you love.”

For the approximately 267,000 federal workers that fall under this new policy, it’ll be applicable whether employees work remotely or from the office, as well as if they work outside of Canada. The plan differentiates between those who are unable to be fully vaccinated, and those who are unwilling to be vaccinated.

There will be exemptions made for “certified medical contraindications,” as well as for religious reasons. Though, these accommodations will only be granted under certain parameters, including providing documented medical proof of the requirement for the exemption or testifying under oath to their religious beliefs, according to senior government officials that briefed reporters on the policy on a not-for-attribution basis, ahead of the announcement.

In addition to being put on unpaid leave, employees who do not attest to their vaccination status, or attest that they are unvaccinated, will be required to take an online training session on COVID-19 vaccines. They will also not be able to access their workplace or any off-site events or meetings. Travel for business, including to attend conferences, will also be prohibited.

These work-related measures will also be imposed on partially-vaccinated workers, though they will have up to 10 weeks to receive their second dose before being put on unpaid leave.  

The mandatory vaccination policy includes the RCMP, as well as full-time employees, casual workers, students and volunteers for federal departments, agencies, and offices such as the Department of Health, Veterans Affairs Canada, Service Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Correctional Service of Canada, and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The new rules do not apply to members of the Canadian Armed Forces, though Freeland said that the Chief of Defence Staff will be moving to make vaccination mandatory under its own parameters. As well, separate agencies and Crown corporations like the Canada Revenue Agency are being asked to implement vaccine policies mirroring the requirements announced Wednesday.

Officials suggested that while this policy does not extend to all employees in federally-regulated workplaces, such as banks, the government is working with them to "ensure vaccination is prioritized for workers in these sectors."

“We are taking this step to protect those who work in the federal public service, their families, and their communities. This measure also protects everyone who does business with the public service, whether it is getting access to your benefits at a Service Canada office, or safely traveling across our borders,” Freeland said.

Rather than requiring employees to provide their vaccine receipts the way that many Canadians are being asked to now to access certain public spaces such as restaurants and gyms, federal public servants will have to submit an online attestation of their vaccination status but could be asked to show proof “at any time.”

Defending this, the government said that because the federal public service is so vast, a system was needed that could be enacted quickly, but verifications will be done.

“It's very straightforward: If you want to continue to work for the public service of Canada, you're going to need to be fully vaccinated. And the way to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible, is to allow for the vast majority of public servants who are vaccinated, to make a simple straightforward attestation… That allows managers and departments to focus in on those people who will not,” Trudeau said.

Officials said that the tracking system opens Wednesday for some employees to begin submitting their attestations. There will be some flexibility granted for employees who, because of the work they are currently doing, are unable to access vaccination or provide their attestation by the deadline. They will have two weeks from the date they have access to both to become compliant with the policy.

“If an employee submits a false statement they risk disciplinary action, which could ultimately cost them their jobs,” said a senior official.

Reacting to the news, Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) President Chris Aylward told CTV News Channel that the union has concerns about what’s been proposed, saying that while the organization supports a vaccination policy, this one appears “rushed.”

Aylward said that when it comes to the accommodations for those who are unvaccinated, the policy “falls short,” suggesting remote work or reassignment should be options.

PSAC represents more than 160,000 federal public workers.

“When the prime minister first talked about a vaccination policy on Aug. 13, he said that they would be talking to, to the unions. Unfortunately that did not happen. There was no meaningful consultation on this policy,” he said.

The government is considering workers to be fully vaccinated 14 days after they have either received a full vaccination series of a Health Canada authorized vaccine, received a NACI-approved mixed dose vaccination series, or if a Quebec resident, received a lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection followed by at least one dose of an authorized COVID-19 vaccine.

Officials said that if boosters become a widespread requirement, the policy could be adjusted accordingly, and that the policy will be re-assessed every six months to determine whether it needs to remain in place, citing the objective being public health.

PROOF FOR PASSENGERS

In addition to federal workers, employees and passengers in the federally-regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors will have to be fully vaccinated as of Oct. 30.

This means that any worker—including at retail or hospitality establishments in restricted sections of airports— or passengers boarding any domestic flights, or interprovincial trains or cruise ships will have to provide proof of vaccination. Ferry passengers are not included in these new rules.

There will be a short period of time where proof of a negative COVID-19 test will be acceptable to board, though by the end of November that option will no longer be available.

There will be limited exemptions for Indigenous communities that require fly-in services like medical care.

This policy will apply to any passenger ages 12 and older, as they are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines authorized by Health Canada.

To qualify, people will have to have received their last dose 14 days prior to travelling.

The government said that it is still working with employers on the “operational details” of implementing the new mandate, but for now it will be incumbent on companies such as Via Rail or WestJet to determine how they check the proof provided by their employees and passengers.

“Part of the work that we're doing with the major carriers in this country is to integrate the proof of vaccination digital codes into their online booking process, so that when you print out your boarding pass either at the airport, or in advance, there will be a clearly marked proof of vaccination thumbs up or checkmark, so that the gate agent does not have to be checking documentation,” Trudeau said.

The government said it and will impose a “strict vaccine requirement in place for cruise ships before the resumption of the 2022 cruise season.

“Our message to all unvaccinated travelers is clear: If you're planning a trip in the coming weeks, you need to book your vaccine appointment now," said an official.

Trudeau also said that work is continuing to work with the provinces and territories, which hold Canadian’s vaccination records, to develop a pan-Canadian proof of vaccination for Canadians to use for international travel.

“The standardized, pan-Canadian proof of vaccination is a factual document that shows a traveller has been vaccinated against COVID-19. It is expected to have a common look and include the holder’s COVID-19 vaccination history, such as the number of doses, vaccine type(s), and date and place where doses were administered,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Sonia Lesage in an email to CTV News.

“This standardization will help both foreign and Canadian border officials to recognize it as a reliable Canadian document and to assess whether the traveller meets their country’s health and entry requirements,” she continued, suggesting it could also be used for inter-provincial travel proof when required.

WHAT ABOUT PARLIAMENT HILL?

While MPs don’t fall under the new mandate for federal workers, departmental staff do, as do administration staff in the House, Senate, and Library of Parliament.

Asked Wednesday whether he wants to see a vaccine mandate for MPs and their political staff, Trudeau said that while many staff within the parliamentary precinct will be covered, because of parliamentary privilege, MPs will have to “figure out how to move forward,” specifically referencing members of the Conservative caucus.

The Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois have said that all their MPs are fully vaccinated, though the Conservatives continue to not confirm the vaccination status of their MPs.

“We know that all other MPs in this House will be vaccinated, so it is something for Erin O'Toole and the Conservative Party to deal with. They will have MPs not able to get on planes to come to Ottawa if they're unvaccinated. They will have MPs putting their fellow colleagues at risk in a large but closed, windowless room in the House of Commons, who may be sitting beside or near someone who is unvaccinated,” Trudeau said.

“We will of course engage in as constructive a way as possible, but Canadians expect us both to lead by example, and not be vectors of transmission to each other.”

In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just in its early days, the House of Commons suspended its proceedings until an arrangement could be made for altered sittings that accommodated the needed public health precautions.

After months of holding ad-hoc emergency meetings, all sides eventually agreed on a hybrid sitting format that allowed MPs to virtually vote and participate from their homes or offices and still appear, via screens, inside the chamber where a small number of usually nearby MPs participated in-person.

Introduced before the mass immunization effort allowed all eligible Canadians to roll up their sleeves to receive the additional protection against the novel coronavirus, the hybrid sitting format was intended to be a temporary solution.

Now, a new agreement will have to be ironed out before MPs kick off the 44th Parliament, which will happen sometime before the end of the fall, according to the prime minister. So far, caucuses appear split on whether the hybrid format should be revived. 

Because of the way rule changes for MPs are generally handled, any future agreements that would allow MPs to continue to participate virtually would likely require the agreement of all parties in the House. Any decision around requiring vaccinations would likely have to be made by the Board of Internal Economy, the cross-party committee of MPs that oversees the workings of the House of Commons.

With a file from CTV News’ Sarah Turnbull

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