Federal government won't budge on vaccine mandate for truckers as convoy heads for Ottawa
The federal government says it will not back down on its vaccination rule for cross-border truckers despite entrenched opposition from some drivers and groups claiming to represent their interests.
In a joint media statement released today, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Stephen Laskowski, the president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), said COVID-19 vaccines are the "most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19" and protect public health.
In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, Alghabra said the government is not interested in alternatives like rapid testing for unvaccinated truckers. He said truckers and the wider industry have had months to prepare for the new regulations and drivers must now get the shot or stop driving over the border.
"Our plan is to defeat COVID and end the pandemic as quickly as possible. What we're doing right now is for the protection of truck drivers but also for the protection of our supply chains and our economy," Alghabra said. "The best way to deal with COVID is through vaccination."
A convoy of protesters — including truckers and members of groups broadly opposed to public health mandates — are set to descend on Ottawa this weekend to stage a demonstration on Parliament Hill.
The effort, dubbed the "freedom convoy" by participants, is being organized by Canada Unity, a group that opposes COVID-19-related measures. A GoFundMe campaign organized by Tamara Lich — who has ties to the Maverick Party, a federal party with roots in Alberta separatist circles — has so far collected more than $4.3 million in donations to support the convoy.
WATCH | Employment minister tells CBC's Power & Politics there are no plans to roll back vaccine mandate
A spokesperson for GoFundMe said today the company is putting a hold on the funds "until the organizer is able to provide the documentation to our team about how funds will be properly distributed."
"We require that fundraisers be transparent about the flow of funds and have a clear plan for how those funds will be spent. In this case, we are in touch with the organizer to verify that information," Rachel Hollis told CBC News.
Lich has said the money will be used to cover food, fuel and lodging costs associated with the convoy. "It's a small price to pay for our freedoms," she said in her appeal to would-be donors.
Some Conservative MPs have offered their support to the anti-mandate movement. Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP from Alberta, called the policy a "vaccine vendetta."
At least one Conservative MP — Martin Shields, who represents the Alberta riding of Bow River in the House of Commons — said he would be on hand in Ottawa to meet the convoy when it arrives. He said there should be "exceptions" to the mandate, including for essential workers who move goods across the Canada-U.S. border.
"Canadian supply chains are critical and the Trudeau Liberal government's mandates and freedom-curbing restrictions have gone on too long. It's time to get our freedoms back," Shields tweeted.
"Let's support the truckers and I'll be happy to meet with them here in Ottawa," he added in a video. "I want to meet those truckers."
Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer added his voice to the chorus of criticism, calling the prime minister the "biggest threat to freedom in Canada."
"Thank you Truckers! Trudeau is attacking personal liberty and threatening everyone's ability to get groceries because of his overreach on vaccine mandates," he said in a social media post.
The federal ministers said they are working on the supply chain issues, which have been driven in large part by pandemic-related shortages, constrained port capacity and a reduced labour force. They promised to work with the trucking industry to draft "long-term strategies that will achieve real and lasting results."
"As the pandemic continues, it remains critical that essential goods reach Canadians as quickly as possible. In fact, this is a top priority for the government of Canada and the Canadian Trucking Alliance," the ministers said in their statement.
The mandate, which took effect on Jan. 15, states that all Canadian cross-border essential workers — including truckers — must show proof of vaccination at a port of entry to avoid stringent testing requirements and quarantine.
Those rules have been in effect for the travelling public since the fall. Truckers travelling within Canada are not affected by these new measures.
Partially vaccinated and unvaccinated foreign nationals will be turned away by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials. The United States has implemented a similar mandate requiring all U.S.-bound travellers to show proof that they've had the required shots.
While the CTA said the vast majority of truckers are fully vaccinated, it warned that anywhere from 12,000 to 16,000 Canadian cross-border commercial drivers — roughly 10 to 15 per cent of all truckers who regularly cross the Canada-U.S. boundary — could be sidelined by the federal mandate.
Business groups call for delay
Some business groups, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition, are now calling on Ottawa pause the mandate to prevent further supply chain constraints.
In a statement, Dennis Darby, the chair of the manufacturers' coalition, said companies "can't get the goods we need because of supply chain bottlenecks," a problem "made worse by the trucker vaccine mandate."
"Our manufacturers can't operate and Canadians are seeing empty shelves. We need the government to help relieve pressure by avoiding policies that make the situation worse and to help us get the workers we need," Darby said.
Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said supply chains are under "extreme stress" because of a shortage of shipping containers and severe COVID-related restrictions in China, among other factors. Beatty said businesses don't want to see the federal government "make matters worse at this critical time."
"What we are asking for is that they delay implementation at a time when supply chains are under severe pressure and that they use that time to encourage and facilitate vaccinations," Beatty said, adding he's frustrated that the government hasn't provided any data to suggest that truckers are a "serious source" of new COVID-19 infections in Canada.
A spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) — a trade association representing dozens of retailers, including major players like Canadian Tire, Costco, Lowe's, Metro, Rexall and Sobeys — also said it's concerned about the new vaccine requirement.
"Though RCC does not oppose a mandatory vaccine policy for truckers, we are concerned with the timing of this policy, which allowed only a very short window for completed vaccinations, compounded by the obvious fact that it is harder to schedule vaccinations for people who are on the road most of the time by the very nature of their work," Michelle Wasylyshen said in a written statement to CBC News.
The government announced the cross-border vaccine policy on Nov. 19 and, after some confusion, the policy took effect on Jan. 15.
Wasylyshen said the "risk to transportation of goods is real" and there will likely be "increasing freight costs." Only a few days after the mandate took effect, she said, some retailers are starting to report "significant impacts" and are "experiencing difficulties in finding carriers for some of their loads out of the U.S."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the policy at a press conference Monday, saying a wave of COVID-19 cases is doing more to disrupt Canada's supply chains than any vaccine mandate could. He said enforcing this policy is the best way to keep new travel-related infections under control.
"We know that about 90 per cent of truckers are vaccinated across this country. We're going to continue to do everything we can to ensure COVID does not become a scourge and therefore we need to encourage everyone to get vaccinated," he said.
Trudeau also accused the Conservatives of "fear-mongering" over the prospect of mandate-related shortages.
Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman — the party's transport critic and an opponent of the trucker mandate — came under fire this week for posting a picture of a grocery store with empty shelves while warning that supply issues could worsen if the vaccine requirement is enforced.
The picture she posted was a stock image taken at a store in northern England.