Trudeau warns of 'consequences' for public servants who duck COVID-19 shots

·6 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference after meeting with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and triggering an election at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug 15, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference after meeting with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and triggering an election at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug 15, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today the government will demand that virtually all federal public servants get a COVID-19 shot — and warned of workplace repercussions for those who defy the rule.

Speaking at a campaign stop in Markham, Ont., Trudeau pushed back against Conservative claims that the government's vaccination policy is not all that different from what their leader, Erin O'Toole, has proposed to ensure the safety of federal workplaces.

"We're unequivocal that civil servants must be vaccinated. If anyone doesn't have a legitimate medical reason for not getting fully vaccinated — or chooses to not get vaccinated — there will be consequences," Trudeau said, without explaining what sort of punishment a bureaucrat could face for shunning the vaccine.

The Treasury Board Secretariat — the central government agency that is nominally the employer of all public servants — posted a letter online recently saying bureaucrats who refuse vaccination can instead undergo rapid testing before starting a shift. O'Toole, who is firmly opposed to mandatory vaccination, has proposed a similar policy, saying all Canadians should be allowed to choose whether they get vaccinated.

O'Toole said that, rather than requiring that public servants and travellers get the shot, a government led by him would require them to pass a rapid test before going into work or, in the case of travellers, boarding a bus, train, plane or ship.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The Treasury Board yanked the message from its website late Monday after the Conservatives held it up as evidence that Trudeau's hard line on vaccinations was all for show, and accused him of trying to mislead Canadians about how the vaccine mandate would be enforced.

Conservatives call for investigation of deleted message

In a letter to Janice Charette, the interim clerk of the Privy Council and head of the civil service, Conservative candidate Michael Barrett called the letter's removal a "serious breach of the caretaker convention" — which says the machinery of government must act with restraint and avoid "controversial" matters during an election period.

Barrett alleges someone in the Liberal party or close to Trudeau "directed the deletion" of the letter to serve a "partisan rationale."

"The government does not show restraint, in an election period, when it conscripts persons in the bureaucracy to intervene for partisan political purposes. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has occurred on the first full day of the 44th general election," Barrett said.

"On close inspection, the vaccine policy set by the Liberal government mirrors that of the Conservative Party of Canada, despite the Liberal Party of Canada's unfounded critiques of our policy. When members of the media noted this similarity, the government policy was deleted from public-facing website."

Barrett said the party "requires that an immediate investigation be conducted to identify all individuals, both from the bureaucracy and the Liberal government partisan political staff, who were involved in the decision."

Asked Tuesday if he or anyone on his team asked the department to drop the vaccination policy from the website, Trudeau said the message was removed because it was "erroneous" and "didn't reflect government policy."

WATCH: Trudeau says all federal leaders should encourage Canadians to get fully vaccinated

"It was brought down by the public service," he said. "It would be wonderful if the Conservatives under Erin O'Toole took the same position as us for the public service or anyone taking a train or plane. Unfortunately, that is not their position. They're not there to defend the safety of Canadians."

The federal policy — hastily announced Friday only two days before the election campaign launched — would make vaccines mandatory for federal employees and those working in some federally regulated industries (airlines and railways, among others) in an effort to boost stalled vaccination rates.

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While the timeline remains sketchy, the government has said federal public servants have until sometime in September — and transport workers have until some point in October — to get both doses of the vaccine to be in compliance with the new order.

The government said it also "expects" that Crown corporations and other employers in federally regulated sectors — like banking, broadcasting and telecommunications — will require vaccination for their employees. "The government will work with these employers to ensure this result," the government said in a statement announcing the new mandate.

Beyond the mandatory vaccination requirement for federal employees, the government will impose a similar mandate on certain travellers.

Starting soon, all commercial air travellers and passengers on interprovincial trains and large marine vessels with overnight accommodations (such as cruise ships) will have to be vaccinated.

Trudeau said today the government is negotiating the finer points of this plan with public sector unions. Two of those unions, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), have said they support the mandate in principle.

"PSAC supports measures to increase vaccination rates, including vaccination requirements for federal public service workers to protect our members, their colleagues and our communities," said PSAC president Chris Aylward in a statement.

WATCH: O'Toole says vaccines are critical but should not be used to divide Canadians

Canada is now a world leader in immunizations, with more than 82 per cent of the eligible population having been vaccinated with at least one dose. But the pace of vaccinations has slowed considerably since a blitz in April and May, with well below 100,000 first shots handed out each day.

With a fourth wave of new infections hitting Canada, experts say boosting vaccine coverage will protect the country's health care system from again being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

Singh says he supports disciplining the unvaccinated 'in rare cases'

Trudeau is not alone in proposing penalties for federal workers who refuse a shot. Speaking at an event promoting made-in-Canada personal protective equipment (PPE), NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said today that while public servants have a right to choose not to get vaccinated, "there will be consequences" for those who don't.

"Our goal is to protect people and to keep people safe," he said.

Singh said, under his plan, an unvaccinated federal employee who works in a public-facing role could be moved out of their job.

"For employees who still refuse to be vaccinated, without a reason related to health status, we would expect that the collective agreement would be followed. All collective agreements include a process for progressive discipline — up to and including termination. Discipline should always be a last resort, but may be necessary in rare cases to protect the health and safety of Canadians," he said.

WATCH: Singh says: 'People will have the choice not to get vaccinated, but there will be consequences'

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier called the mandate "immoral, illegal and unconstitutional."

"We believe in freedom of choice. Everyone must be free to decide whether they want a vaccine or not — with informed consent. We'll fight against these Draconian measures," he said.

Bernier, who is unvaccinated, has been among the most vocal opponents of COVID-19 related measures like lockdowns and masking. In June, Bernier was arrested in Manitoba for defying public health orders.

"I don't want to be in a society where people are asking, 'Show me your papers.' We will have two classes of citizens. That must change, we are not in a communist country," Bernier said.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet was also skeptical of the policy's constitutionality.

"I don't think the federal government can dictate that," he said. "That is the power and responsibility of Quebec."

In fact, Ottawa has authority over people who work in federally regulated sectors.

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