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Health care workers prepare doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, May 13 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The federal government has introduced legislation aimed at protecting health care workers and patients from violence and intimidation, and also plans to bring in 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers.

The bill proposes amendments to the Criminal Code for the protection of health care workers and changes to the Canada Labour Code to provide sick leave days. Federally regulated industries include interprovincial air, rail, road and marine transportation, banks, postal and courier services.

The government said that in 2019, about 582,700 employees, or 63 per cent of all employees working in the federally regulated private sector, had access to fewer than 10 days of paid leave to treat a personal illness or injury.

The Criminal Code amendments would create a new intimidation offence to protect health care workers and people who are seeking health services. The federal government said that the changes mean that individuals who intimidate or harass a health care worker could be charged and, if found guilty, would be subject to a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

The amendments also propose creating an offence that would prohibit the obstruction of any person from accessing health facilities. Ottawa said that the new sentencing provisions would require courts to consider more serious penalties for offenders who target health care workers or who impede others from obtaining health services.

Justice Minister David Lametti said that no one should be intimidated for providing or seeking health care and everyone should be able to access care without undue obstruction.

“Canadians who want to express their opinions in a peaceful way will be able to continue to do so,” he said. “However, those freedoms do not extend to people who intimidate, harass, obstruct or threaten our frontline health care workers and professionals, support workers and users.”

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) applauded the federal government’s move Friday to enact legislation to protect health workers from threats, violence, harassment and intimidation, calling the issue urgent. The CMA said it has witnessed during the pandemic an escalation of online harassment and threats of violence targeting health workers.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions also said it supports the measures. “This is an essential measure that responds to long-standing calls for our federal leaders to step up and recognize the serious risks of assault and injury that health care workers face on the job,” said the federation’s president Linda Silas.

A 2019 report conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health documented that health care workers have a four times higher rate of workplace violence than any other profession, despite most of the incidents being unreported.

Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said paid sick leave will protect workers and families, as well as protect their jobs and workplaces. He said it is important step in the fight against COVID-19 and a necessary step to expand the social safety net.

In a statement, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress thanked the federal government for the sick-leave measure.

“We have seen throughout the pandemic that if workers can’t stay home when sick, our communities pay a price with more COVID outbreaks and worse public-health outcomes,” Bea Bruske said.

Ms. Bruske also welcomed the new measures to protect health-care workers from harassment, but noted the right to strike and organize must be explicitly protected.

Conservative labour critic Scott Aitchison was dismissive of the legislation, calling it “all symbolism.”

“The proposed legislation will have a minimal impact on federally-regulated private sector workplaces, many of which already have paid sick leave programs,” he said in a statement.

He also denounced the harassment of front-line nurses, doctors and health-care workers, noting the Conservatives had proposed legislation to prevent protesters from blocking key infrastructure like hospitals, rail lines, or pipelines.

“We will review the proposed legislation to ensure it protects health care workers and critical infrastructure,” he said.

Bloc Québécois spokesperson Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous said his party is reviewing the legislation.

On paid sick leave, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the announcement long overdue, but he questioned why it could have not been tabled when workers needed access during the pandemic.

“During an unprecedented global public health crisis, the Liberal government refused to make things better for workers by offering them paid sick leave,” Mr. Singh said.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it is concerned about the plans on paid sick days. It urged “extreme caution” in imposing new costs on small businesses when most are still recovering from the pandemic.

“CFIB urges the federal government to consult with small business owners and not impose this new cost,” said president Dan Kelly.

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