Frank Addario is a lawyer in Toronto.
Canadians who are confused or angry about COVID-19′s surging fourth wave should blame their elected officials.
For months, they have fumbled the crisis. In the midst of another year of uncertainty, the economy and public services require crisp and clear action, but no such thing is on the horizon – even though the tools are available to provincial and federal leaders to impose the health-protection directives we need.
In Ontario, there is a decades-old law on the books called the Immunization of School Pupils Act. The law allows the government to list diseases against which all students must be immunized; if they fail to do so, they cannot attend school. Ontario has lost more school days than any other province since March, 2020 – but is Premier Doug Ford requiring students over 12 to be vaccinated against COVID-19? No. In the biggest crisis Mr. Ford will ever face as a leader, he has ignored science and refused to take steps to protect students, families and businesses. Last week, he grudgingly announced a diluted vaccine passport – all while protesting that it was not his first choice.
In Alberta, meanwhile, the province routinely uses ministerial orders under the Public Health Act to direct how people with COVID-19 are treated. But its cabinet has not taken the obvious step needed to end the crisis: tying access to public facilities to proof of vaccination. Instead, Premier Jason Kenney is using taxpayer money to bribe the unvaccinated, announcing just last week that the government would pay $100 to anyone who now gets the jab. A small minority of anti-science noisemakers are now effectively dictating public policy to the Premier.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe is presiding over the worst COVID-19 case numbers his province has endured since the pandemic was first declared. Last week, he pledged his support to organizations with vaccine mandates, but refused to impose his own, calling it “heavy-handed.” Saskatchewan: you could be forgiven for thinking your premier was supposed to lead, not follow.
When I hear leaders say they don’t want to interfere with “rights” by imposing vaccine mandates, I am genuinely confused. Civil liberties fundamentalists – and I count myself as one – can distinguish between the state bursting into their homes and the state drawing lines to protect everyone else. Canada’s Criminal Code, for example, is filled with “do’s and don’ts” created by Parliament. It is designed to protect us from bad actors who don’t care about our health and safety. Timorous politicians have argued that the imposition of vaccine mandates is authoritarian, but this is nonsense: The state has been regulating public health for decades, and vaccination is a long-established pillar of public health.
Do the premiers really think we are dull enough to believe their torpor has to do with defending our civil liberties?
What about Justin Trudeau? The federal Emergencies Act allows the government to declare a public-welfare emergency. One justification for this would be to note that the crisis is beyond the capacity of the provinces to act; like climate change, COVID-19 is not confined by arbitrary borders. That, combined with the weak leadership of some premiers, offers evidence that a national emergency is well under way. But Mr. Trudeau has yet to pull the trigger. Meanwhile, Erin O’Toole – his principal opponent in the election campaign – is promising to send mail-outs to the unvaccinated if elected. So much for bold vision.
One way to think of the issue of vaccine mandates is through the framework of licensing. Citizens aren’t allowed to drive a car without a licence, and those with medical problems (bad eyesight, say, or a history of seizures) need proof of a medical solution before getting behind the wheel. No one can smoke in a school, office or sporting arena. The justification for these rules is community safety. Why, then, should an unvaccinated person be allowed to cough hot COVID-19 droplets near you? Seen in this light, the arguments against vaccine mandates are illogical and inconsistent with Canadian law.
The cowardice of elected officials has also put the burden of leadership on employers and service providers. This has led to a slew of dubious lawsuits by COVID-19 deniers. A Toronto police officer revealed the flavour of these arguments last week, describing her “God-given inalienable right” not to take a vaccine. The result of our legislative vacuum will be years of uncertainty, deeper suspicions about legitimate exemptions for medical and religious reasons. While the law cannot force vaccines on genuine objectors, government has an important role as a teacher.
A government-led mandate would encourage life-saving vaccination, keep unvaccinated Canadians out of public settings, allow the economy to heal, and let the majority of Canadians return to normal life. It’s time for courage.
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