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Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

Ottawa unveils vaccine mandate for workers, travellers but implementation details a work in progress

Wednesday, October 06, 2021 @ 4:44 PM | By Cristin Schmitz

Last Updated: Wednesday, October 06, 2021 @ 7:28 PM


Ottawa has unveiled a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for most federal government workers, and employees within the federally regulated air, rail and marine sectors, along with a new proof-of-vaccination requirement for travellers on airplanes, interprovincial trains and cruise ships — but some questions remain as to who exactly is covered, and how the new policy, and the duty to accommodate, will be applied and enforced in practice.

Labour and employment lawyers, in-house counsel and other legal practitioners will find much of interest in Ottawa’s Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is effective Oct. 6, 2021:

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland

Announced at an Oct. 6 press conference in Ottawa by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, the 17-page policy puts some flesh on the Liberal government’s barebones pledge, made just before the prime minister called an election last August, that Ottawa would be implementing federal vaccine mandates by the end of October.

Extolling the “strong” vaccine mandates her government was announcing that affect approximately 267,000 federal workers, Freeland said the “evidence is absolutely clear that vaccines are safe.”

“They prevent the spread of COVID,” she said. “They significantly reduce the severity of cases and, most importantly, they save lives. They also allow our businesses and workplaces and schools to reopen and to stay open. Our absolutely strongest and most important economic policy continues to be a strong public health response and that very much includes making sure all eligible Canadians get vaccinated.”

Under the new policy, federal workers in the “Core Public Administration,” as listed in schedules I and IV of the Financial Administration Act, including RCMP members, will be required to attest to their vaccination status by Oct. 29, 2021. Those who are unwilling to disclose their vaccination status, or to be fully vaccinated will be placed on administrative leave without pay as early as Nov. 15, 2021. The veracity of their declaration of vaccine status is subject to being audited, and “managers can ask for proof of vaccination at any time.” 

Making a false statement would breach the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector and could result in disciplinary action, including firing.

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate applies whether a worker is teleworking, working remotely, or working on-site, and includes, among others, determinate and indeterminate employees, internationally based public service employees, casual workers, students and volunteers.

It will be up to public service managers to carry out the employer’s duty to accommodate workers who decline to vaccinate for bona fide medical, religious or other reasons based on the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Employees will be required to request any accommodation through the government’s vaccine attestation tracking system and to provide supporting documentation to their manager.

Trudeau emphasized that exemptions from the requirement that people be “fully vaccinated” for COVID-19 will be “rare.” “Exemptions, whether they are medical, or otherwise, will be exceedingly narrow, specific and, to be honest, somewhat onerous to obtain,” he said. “The goal is to make sure that everyone who can, chooses to get vaccinated.”

He said the government is working with Health Canada on defining medical exemptions, and with other “partners” on the nature and regulation of other possible exemptions. “Let me say that simply having a personal conviction that vaccines are bad will not be nearly enough to qualify for an exemption,” he said.

While the policy clearly indicates that it applies to the “staff” (i.e. not the judges) at the Supreme Court of Canada, and expressly indicates that workers in the registries for the four Ottawa-based federal courts and federal administrative tribunals, are covered by the federal vaccine mandate, it remains an open question whether all administrative tribunal members are themselves covered, and whether quasi-judicial entities, such as the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, are covered.

Speaking during a technical briefing before the announcement, officials told The Lawyer’s Daily “the other organizations such as the House of Commons, the Senate, the judicial sector will be asked to mirror the same policy, but they will have to do it under their own governance and authority framework.”

Employers in the federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors will have until Oct. 30, 2021, to establish vaccination policies that ensure their employees are vaccinated.

The government said it is “asking” Crown corporations and separate agencies to implement vaccine policies “mirroring” the requirements announced for the rest of the federal public service.

The government said the military’s acting chief of the Defence Staff will “issue a directive” requiring vaccination for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Ottawa also said it “will keep working with employers in other federally regulated workplaces” — for example banks and telecommunications — “to ensure vaccination is prioritized for workers in these sectors.”

With respect to proof of vaccination for travellers 12 or older, the government announced that as of Oct. 30, 2021, travellers departing from Canadian airports, and travellers on VIA Rail and Rocky Mountaineer trains, will be required to be fully vaccinated, “with very limited exceptions.”

For travellers who are in the process of being vaccinated, there will be “a short transition period” ending Nov. 30, where they will be able to travel if they can show a valid COVID-19 molecular test within 72 hours of travel.

The government said that as of Oct. 30, 2021, employers in the federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors will be required to establish vaccination policies for: airlines and airports and other organizations who have employees who enter restricted areas of airports, such as concession and hospitality workers; federally regulated railways, and their rail crew and track employees; and marine operators with Canadian vessels that operate with 12 or more crew.

The government said Transport Canada will use its regulatory and oversight authorities to ensure each organization implements a “rigorous” policy, which must include: a provision for employee attestation/declaration of their vaccination status: a description of consequences for employees who do not comply or who falsify information; and standards consistent with the approach taken by the federal government for the core public administration.

After “a short phase-in” period, each organization is required to guarantee employees are fully vaccinated or they will be unable to work, said the government.

Ottawa said it is working with working with industry “and key partners” to put in place a “strict vaccine requirement” for cruise ships before the beginning of the 2022 cruise season.

Trudeau said the federal government is working with (including funding) the provinces, who control Canadians’ medical and vaccination information, to come up with a standard proof of vaccination acceptable, for example, at airports across the country. “We are working to standardize them so they are available to people to travel internationally in a unified format that will allow for that,” he said. 

With respect to gate agents at airports, he said the government is working with the major airline carriers in Canada to integrate proof of vaccination digital codes into their online booking process so that when people print out their boarding passes “there will be a clearly marked proof of vaccination thumbs up, or check mark, so that the gate agent does not have to be checking documentation.”

Trudeau said this is an “extra responsibility the provinces need to step up on” to enable Canadians to travel.

In response to reporters’ other questions, Trudeau and Freeland also said that the scheduled Oct. 23 expiry of some key emergency COVID-19 financial supports — such as wage and rent subsidies for businesses — will not end Ottawa’s support for business and workers during the ongoing fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Said Freeland, “we will provide economic support as needed, and we’re working on that, and then we’re also aware, as we committed to during the campaign, that while some sectors of the economy are recovering very robustly ... there are some sectors that have been, and continue to be, particularly hard hit — you know tourism and events are some examples. And so we are working on ways to ensure that support is there for them, so we’ll have more to say about the specifics soon.”

Added Trudeau, “it comes down to the bottom line of the promise that we made at the beginning of this pandemic, to have Canadians’ backs as much as it took, as long as it took, not just because that’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do to ensure that our economy is bouncing back, to make sure that business can thrive once again quickly.”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Dailyplease contact Cristin Schmitz at Cristin.schmitz@lexisnexis.ca or call 613 820-2794.