Allow vaccine passport exemptions or face legal challenge, group warns B.C. government

Premier John Horgan addresses the media on Feb. 10, 2021. (B.C. government/Flickr)

A Calgary-based legal foundation has threatened to take the B.C. government to court if officials refuse to allow medical and religious exemptions to the province's COVID-19 vaccine passport system.

The Canadian Constitution Foundation, which previously supported a failed legal challenge of the province's public health-care system, announced this week that it's preparing litigation on behalf of individuals who will be temporarily excluded from non-essential activities such as dining in restaurants and going to the gym when the passport system takes effect later this month.

In an open letter sent to B.C. Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Attorney General David Eby on Tuesday, the group described the impact the system will have on unvaccinated individuals as "unwarranted and extreme."

"The vaccine passport policy prevents people who are unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons or reasons of religion or conscience from participating in public life," it reads. "A failure to create an exemption or accommodation for these individuals is a violation of their Section 15 Charter-protected right not to be discriminated against on the basis of disability or religion."

The foundation, which is a registered charity in Canada and named as a partner of the U.S.-based Atlas Network, which supports hundreds of right-leaning think tanks around the world, also suggested the government should exempt everyone with a non-religious but "sincerely held" belief that prevents them from getting the vaccine.

It's unclear how a passport system would function if those individuals were to be exempted as well.

Christine Van Geyn, the group's litigation director, told CTV News the foundation hasn't decided what relief it will be seeking from the courts, and might request that the passport system be struck down entirely.

If the litigation does go forward, she said the CCF will likely be focusing on medical exemptions.

"Our preference is not to litigate. We would like to see the government make accommodations to people," Van Geyn added, pointing to medical exemptions already being promised in other provinces. "If Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia can do it, why can't B.C.?"

B.C. health officials have previously said there will be no exemptions to the proof-of-vaccination requirement, which is being phased in on Sept. 13 and expected to remain in place until the end of January. Officials hope that COVID-19 transmission, which surged over the summer as the highly contagious Delta variant spread across Canada, will be under control by then.

"This is a temporary measure that's getting us through a risky period where we know people who are unvaccinated are at a greater risk, both of contracting and spreading this virus," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last month.

"Those rare people who have a medical reason why they can't be immunized … they will not be able to attend those events during this period."

While unveiling the details of the government's plan on Tuesday, Henry stressed that grocery stores and essential services will remain available to everyone who hasn't been vaccinated for any reason.

She also noted there will be some options for those who are temporarily impacted, such as ordering takeout from restaurants instead of dining in.