As provinces begin their postpandemic plans to reopen as the myriad risks of COVID-19 recede, a group of ombudsmen from across the country are warning premiers and other officials to weigh the potential pitfalls of making people show proof of vaccination – or vaccine passports – to access public services.
The Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsman released a guide Wednesday outlining how, if they do intend to create such a passport system, provincial and territorial governments can avoid human-rights complaints and legal challenges by creating fair and transparent rules.
“For every action there’s a reaction, so we don’t want to inadvertently affect somebody’s right or somebody’s access to a service the government provides,” CCPO president Bill Smith, the Ombudsman for Nova Scotia, told The Globe and Mail. “You could see how something as simple as taking a driving test might demand a vaccine certificate, or accessing a recreational arena.”
The report states that to create a fair system, any government must give clear direction on the new rules by passing a new law or making the new policy publicly available. They must also build in a review and appeal mechanism for those who challenge the vaccine passport requirement and accommodate those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, the ombudsmen note.
Last week, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners issued a joint statement sounding a similar note of caution to politicians hoping to bring in such passports. Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra also said last week he cannot yet commit to a date – or COVID-19 vaccination rate benchmarks – for when vaccine passports will allow Canada to ease its restrictions on international air travel, which has been restricted to the Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver airports.
Until now, provinces have only been discussing creating vaccine passport programs, Mr. Smith said.
Last December, the Ontario government debated plans to issue digital “immunity certificates” to people as they received their COVID-19 vaccinations, according to provincial government documents obtained through freedom of information legislation and reported on last month by The Globe. Premier Doug Ford’s head of communications has said his government drew up those plans to examine all options but has not decided on creating such a system.
Quebec began sending people electronic proof of their vaccination earlier this month, but the provincial government has said it is still analyzing the idea of a vaccine passport.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has said his government won’t require vaccine passports, nor will it provide them.
“We’ve made it absolutely clear that we will not be facilitating so-called vaccine passports,” Mr. Kenney said during an online question-and-answer session earlier this month.
He added that anyone in Alberta who needs proof of vaccination to travel internationally should use the documentation they received when they got their vaccine.
The United Conservative Party government has tabled legislation that would remove an old provision of the province’s Public Health Act that allowed the government to force people to get vaccinated. The change was endorsed by the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, who noted the provision has never been used.
At a news conference Tuesday unveiling B.C.’s reopening plan, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said she has been studying the issue and does not want proof of vaccination to be required on Canada’s West Coast.
“This virus has shown us that there are inequities in our society that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, and there is no way that we will recommend inequities be increased by use of things like vaccine passports for services [or] for public access here in British Columbia,” she told reporters. “That’s my advice and I’ve got support from the ... Premier.”
When children return to school in B.C. this fall, it is unlikely they will need to prove they have been vaccinated, according to Terri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, which is against vaccine passports. Ms. Mooring, who represents 45,000 public educators, said disadvantaged teens and their families are having a difficult time getting vaccinated in some of Metro Vancouver’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods.
Even though the province has legislated up to three hours’ paid leave for all workers to get vaccinated, that doesn’t apply to transporting family members to get their jab, she said. Plus, many single parents are working multiple jobs and may have a tough time getting to their local mass vaccination sites, she added. Ms. Mooring said the union doesn’t see why some larger schools couldn’t vaccinate students onsite, which would make access much easier for them and their parents.
“The passport plays into this [inequity], because in a sense you could be discriminating against students through no fault of their own,” she said.
With a report from James Keller in Calgary and The Canadian Press
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