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Transport trucks approach the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020.Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press

A noisy subgroup of unvaccinated Canadian truckers is not winning any friends this week.

While the vast majority of people, including most truckers, have done the right thing – the Canadian Truckers Alliance believes the industry’s vaccination rate is north of 80 per cent, mirroring the high national rate – a small group of drivers is in the news for their refusal to join the civil part of civil society.

They are miffed that Ottawa now requires Canadian truckers returning from the United States to be fully vaccinated in order to enter the country unimpeded. Non-vaccinated or partially vaccinated drivers will have to provide a fresh PCR COVID-19 test at the border, and to quarantine in their homes for 14 days after they’ve delivered their load to its destination.

The mandate is part of a broader policy announced in November that also includes international students over 18 and professional athletes. It came into effect on Jan. 15.

As a protest, disgruntled truckers will leave British Columbia on Sunday and head to Ottawa, where they will hold a rally on Parliament Hill.

Those drivers should be vaccinated, and Ottawa has good reasons to be using a mandate to nudge them in that direction. But while a small group of COVID deniers is easily dismissed, it’s impossible to ignore the more reasonable voices that are questioning this federal policy.

It’s also difficult to disregard the inconsistent logic of the policy itself. There are questions the Trudeau government needs to answer about a mandate whose controversies go beyond the usual anti-vaxxery.

The big one is, why now? Cross-border truck drivers were exempt from the original travel bans at the start of the pandemic, and from vaccine mandates once those came into play last year. As a critical part of the economy, they freely came and went across the border for almost two years on the assumption that the benefits of allowing them to do so outweighed the risks.

So what has changed? There is no evidence that they are suddenly a public-health risk, and their work may be more vital than ever, what with the supply chain problems facing importers and exporters alike.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said this week that his group supports vaccine mandates but the timing of this one is causing “more harm than good.”

The Canadian Truckers Alliance has taken the same position: yes to vaccine mandates, but not now. The trucking business is in the midst of a well-documented shortage of drivers, and the CTA says thousands more could leave the industry and exacerbate the situation.

That’s debatable, of course. Perhaps, given the demand for drivers, unvaccinated ones will simply switch to domestic runs, avoiding supply chain chaos, and also neutering the inducive effect of the mandate.

Which itself raises a question: Why should truck drivers on cross-border runs have to be vaccinated when those who drive only in Canada are exempt? And while we are at it, why under the same policy are temporary foreign workers who come to Canada to toil in the close congregate settings of farming and food-processing also exempt?

To be accepted by the public, vaccine mandates have to be consistent in their logic. They also have to be based on an analysis that demonstrates that any costs are outweighed by benefits. Quebec learned that lesson last year when it backed off vaccine mandates for nurses after realizing that a blanket imposition risked leaving hospitals critically short-handed.

It’s just not clear that the benefits of the vaccine mandate for cross-border Canadian truckers will outweigh the costs. It even seems as though the government itself isn’t sure: A few days before the mandate came into effect, the Canada Border Services Agency said truckers would be exempt, only to have Ottawa reverse that a day later. The confusion didn’t inspire confidence in federal decision-making.

It’s important to note here that the Biden administration is expected, for its own political reasons, to impose a similar vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers in a matter of days. If that happens, this whole discussion becomes moot.

But right now, only Canada has a cross-border vaccine mandate for truckers. Does the Trudeau government have a plan to minimize the downsides of this policy, and ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs? It needs to make the case – or pull a U-turn.

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