Vaccination passports should be an election issue

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It is hard to understand how conservative values align with putting people’s health at risk in a global pandemic.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 16, 2021.

OTTAWA—Inoculate but keep it secret.

That seems to be the vaccination position of the premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

It is hard to understand how conservative values align with putting people’s health at risk in a global pandemic.

But in the tug-of-war between collective and individual rights, for Doug Ford, Scott Moe, and Jason Kenney, it is pretty clear that the collective doesn’t count.

It is no surprise that Quebec was the first to mount an aggressive plan to protect the collective. The province moved quickly to announce a vaccination passport and it is developing strict rules covering any non-essential activity, requiring Quebecers to certify their vaccination status.

Quebecers have always supported collective engagement over individual rights. In language laws, that has caused pushback in other parts of the country.

But when it comes to health, the vast majority of Canadians are on their side.

A recent survey showed almost 80 per cent support for an international vaccination travel passport.

That number drops to a slight majority when it comes to proof of vaccination for admission to non-essential public places in Canada.

Next month, Quebec will implement a requirement for vaccination proof by any citizen attending non-essential public places like bars and restaurants.

But Alberta takes the opposite viewpoint. Premier Kenney has gone so far as to state that the province would not “facilitate or accept vaccine passports.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally made a move on the issue last week when the government announced it would be working with all provinces on the provision of an international travel passport.

Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the passport would be available early in the fall. Canada is already lagging behind several jurisdictions on the passport question.

The European Union has a common vaccine passport. The United Kingdom uses a National Health Service verification.

Canada plans to work with provincial health ministries to verify the vaccination information of Canadians. But with three provinces offside, it seems dubious that the passport will come quickly.

A vaccination passport is the kind of wedge issue that Liberals would love to test in an election.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is encouraging all Canadians to get vaccinated, but some members of his caucus have muddied his message.

Former colleague Derek Sloan last year sponsored a petition questioning the safety of a coronavirus vaccine before he was tossed from caucus for other reasons.

Alberta Conservative MP David Yurdiga said it was “tyrannical” for the government to consider mandatory vaccines for employees under federal jurisdiction. Yurdiga said “Canadians deserve the right to liberty … mandating the vaccine … would be a slippery slope.”

That position is widely praised by hard-core libertarians in his party.

But that viewpoint is opposed by the vast majority of Canadians.

With more than 80 per cent of eligible Canadians already vaccinated at least once, their concerns for their own health override liberty.

As long as an unvaccinated Canadian can prevent herd immunity, the issue is broadly understood as one of collective health safety, not individual freedom.

Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna gave us a foretaste of what the campaign might look like when she reflected on the similarities between anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and misogynists in a tweet last Thursday. “Quite a club,” she said.

The Conservative Party is the only one being accused of climate change denial. It is also the only party where the majority of caucus members voted to restrict a woman’s right to abortion in a parliamentary vote on June 2.

The upcoming election narrative is becoming clearer, and the refusal by three Conservative premiers to embrace a COVID passport will give oxygen to the Liberal campaign.

Instead of a vote to simply secure a majority, the Liberals now have an issue to put to the people.

Do you believe that Canadians’ protection against the coronavirus is worth a national vaccine passport? Do you think the value of everyone’s health and safety is more important than individuals right to refuse vaccinations?

Within hours of the government’s announcement of a travel passport, business leaders from retail, restaurant and tourism sectors lauded the decision.

They expressed concern that a fourth wave would further damage an already-embattled economy and anything that can be done to prevent that is worth doing.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is even asking the premier to follow the lead of Quebec by developing a vaccine passport for those who want to attend public events and non-essential destinations like dining establishments and cinemas.

Ford will likely refuse. But voters won’t.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.