Why not using the term 'vaccine passport' could help Nova Scotia in a legal challenge

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Premier Tim Houston, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang are shown at the Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. The pair announced Nova Scotia's proof of vaccination system at this news conference. (Communications Nova Scotia - image credit)
Premier Tim Houston, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang are shown at the Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. The pair announced Nova Scotia's proof of vaccination system at this news conference. (Communications Nova Scotia - image credit)

Nova Scotia officials have avoided calling the province's proof of vaccination system a "vaccine passport," a choice a political scientist says likely has little to do with choosing a less divisive term, but is instead rooted in using language that would be upheld in court challenges.

At a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Premier Tim Houston and Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, announced a proof of vaccination system that will be required for non-essential activities, such as going to restaurants, bars, concerts, movies and fitness facilities. The system will take effect Oct. 4.

The term "vaccine passport" has become a common way to describe these systems, which have sparked debates over privacy and personal freedom versus public health.

Earlier this week, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said his province would be implementing a vaccine passport. Quebec has used similar language, calling its system a "COVID-19 vaccination passport."

Other provinces have taken a different approach, including Ontario, which has announced an "enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate" system.

At the Wednesday press conference, Houston was asked about the Nova Scotia name.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

"It's a policy that will keep people safe, so that's why we're calling it the proof of vaccine policy," he said.

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said the term vaccine passport isn't being used in most of the official announcements coming out of other provinces. He said that's partially because passports fall under federal jurisdiction and relate to international travel and citizenship.

"Provincial governments want to be very, very careful to make sure that if and when this is challenged in court, they're not going to have their systems reversed on a technicality, so the provinces have to show that they are acting within their own jurisdiction and public health is within their own jurisdiction," he said.

Proof of vaccination system is a more neutral term than vaccine passport, but it's also a more accurate description of what it is, Urbaniak said.

"Right now, the proof of vaccination cards or certificates that are being announced by the provinces are not yet in a standardized form and are not being ... formally co-ordinated with the federal government or with international partners," he said.

Robert Huish, a Dalhousie University political science professor with an expertise in global health, said the province is doing a good job with its messaging of why a proof of vaccination system is needed.

CBC
CBC

"Dr. Strang was very clear that by having these accountability checks around the province that it's going to allow businesses to stay open, it's going to allow individuals to live a life outside of lockdown, and without that system, he's worried that lockdown could occur again," said Huish. "We know just how disruptive that is."

Huish, who has studied the role of stigmatization throughout the pandemic, said Nova Scotia's cautious and inclusive language is very effective public health messaging.

He pointed to a commercial produced by the Quebec government that shows two people entering a bar. One walks into an invisible piece of glass and is prevented from entering because they don't have the required vaccinations.

"There it's about, you know, putting the onus on the individual to be excluded from society, where here in Nova Scotia, we're hearing more of a language of protecting each other," said Huish.

Nova Scotia's proof of vaccination system will apply to people 12 and over. For children 11 and under, proof of vaccination won't be required because they're not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations. Children who attend these events with a fully vaccinated individual will be allowed to participate.

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