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Sticking point

Rob Shaw: Turning vaccination into a wedge issue might score short-term political points, but also says something about leadership - just not what Justin Trudeau intended.

Should COVID-19 vaccines be mandatory?

It’s a simple question with a deceptively complex range of answers, which has emerged as one of the earliest - and messiest - wedge issues in the new federal election campaign.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau tried to score early political points by promising that all federal public service workers under his government must be vaccinated, as well as ordinary citizens who want to travel domestically on federally-regulated trains and airplanes.

Trudeau used his first speech of the campaign to point out not all parties support this idea, and cited the disagreement as one of the reasons voters need a choice on a pandemic recovery plan with an early election.

The argument that such a policy should in any way spark an early election is pure nonsense, if for no other reason than the worst possible place to have a debate over vaccination is the hyper-partisan environment of an election campaign, where truth, context, and compromise are tossed aside by politicians out stumping for votes.

But Trudeau nonetheless succeeded in hurling a large political grenade into the headquarters of the Conservative Party of Canada, where leader Erin O’Toole bobbled the issue until it blew up in his face.

O’Toole clashed off with reporters on his first day by refusing to state whether he supported mandatory vaccinations for the civil service and travellers.

The verbal tap-dancing made for a cringeworthy first few hours of campaigning, so strategists tried to staunch the bleeding with a late-night statement that confirmed the party did not support mandatory vaccination but instead would require rapid tests before people could travel by rail, air or boat.

“Canadians want a reasonable and balanced approach that protects their right to make personal health decisions and the need to keep everyone safe,” read the statement.

“What they do not want is the politicization of the pandemic. Vaccines are not a political issue. To try and make them one is dangerous and irresponsible.”

On that last point, at least, the Conservatives are right.

Turning vaccination into a political wedge issue only serves to entrench the vaccine-hesitant Canadians we are all trying to convince to get a shot. It turns vaccination into a partisan fight, dividing the population on party lines. It raises the false hope that just rapid tests are good enough to stop the pandemic, when scientists across the world agree that vaccinations remain the single best tool to save lives.

The only thing we can be sure of is that an election debate centred around the merit of forced vaccinations will take Canada backwards, and push us collectively further away from our goal to vaccinate as many people as possible.

Lost in all that rhetoric is how any such plan would even work. What do you do with federal workers who refuse to take the shot? Fire them? When asked, Trudeau admitted he’s still figuring it out.

A statement to federal government employees from the chief human resources officer late last week suggested alternative measures like testing could be acceptable, but that was quickly backpeddled by a civil service rightly gun-shy to get sucked into an election debate.

The truth is that implementing mandatory vaccination policies is an incredibly complex issue that governments across the globe are still wrestling to understand.

In B.C., Health Minister Adrian Dix has made vaccinations mandatory for workers in long-term care and assisted living homes as of October 12, but also stopped short of requiring them for the provincial civil service.

Unions representing seniors’ care workers appear supportive of the plan in public, but also warn it will require extensive behind-the-scenes negotiations due to the labour relations implications for employees who won’t get a shot for various reasons, including religious beliefs.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has encouraged businesses to set their own separate requirements that customers be vaccinated, to help collectively reduce the risk of virus transmission.

The B.C. government later this week is also expected to outline whether vaccines will be mandatory in post-secondary institutions in September, and will likely face questions about whether K-12 teachers should face mandatory vaccination before the return to classrooms this fall.

Dix has repeatedly warned British Columbians that while they may have the legal right not to get vaccinated, the province will be moving forward in the weeks and months ahead with events, activities, and services that are only available to the vaccinated.

It’s a slow and careful approach. Some might even argue too slow.

But at least it’s well-considered and thoughtful. Which is the exact opposite of what’s happening in the federal election. Trudeau might temporarily score some cheap political points by weaponizing the issue of vaccination as a wedge issue, but he’s done the country a larger disservice by doing so. It says something about his leadership - just not what Trudeau intended.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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