COVID-19: Alberta ‘will not revisit’ mandatory vaccination: Kenney

Click to play video: 'Alberta reacts to prospect of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines'
Alberta reacts to prospect of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines
WATCH ABOVE: Breanna Karstens-Smith has reaction from Alberta to the federal health minister's comments that provinces may eventually consider whether COVID-19 vaccines need to be mandatory. – Jan 8, 2022

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Ontario students needed to be vaccinated to attend schools. The story has been clarified to specify it is some Ontario university students who need to be immunized to attend classes.

The prospect of mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 in Canadian provinces has Alberta Premier Jason Kenney defending his government’s decision to remove that power from the Public Health Act.

“Alberta’s legislature removed the power of mandatory vaccination from the Public Health Act last year and will not revisit that decision, period,” Kenney tweeted Friday.

The premier’s reaction came after federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos floated the idea at an update on the federal response to the Omicron-fuelled COVID-19 pandemic.

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In both French and English, Duclos expressed his personal opinion that provinces and territories will have to make the decision “at some point” whether to further mandate vaccination, recognizing it was the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories.

“What we see now is our health-care system is fragile, our people are tired and the only way that we know to go through COVID-19 — this variant and any future variant — is through vaccination,” the federal health minister said Friday.

Vaccines have been available to adult Canadians since the summer of 2021.

Duclos pointed to his home province of Quebec, where unvaccinated people make up half of hospitalizations.

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“That’s a burden on health-care workers, a burden on society which is very difficult to bear and, for many people, difficult to understand,” he said. “That’s why I’m signalling this as a conversation which I believe provinces and territories, in support with the federal government, will want to have over the next weeks and months.”

One health law expert said she would have liked the federal health minister to clarify what he meant by mandatory vaccination.

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“Do we mean requiring people to get vaccinated or be subject to fines? Or do we merely mean excluding unvaccinated people from more and more potentially essential things to the point that it feels as though they’re mandatory?” Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor at the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said.

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The distinction could have legal implications.

“On the one hand, if we’re actually forcing people to be vaccinated or face threat of a fine, that raises very clear charter kinds of arguments and the government would have to show those rules are justified,” Hardcastle said.

“But on the other hand, if we were merely making things like school or working in certain places contingent upon vaccination, then there is more of a precedent for that.”

Many Canadian employers have already implemented vaccine policies, and many provinces — including Alberta — have implemented so-called vaccine passports, requiring proof of vaccination to participate in activities like professional sports games or eat at restaurants.

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Federally-regulated industries like air travel also require proof of vaccination.

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In Ontario, students are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend some universities.

Quebec recently restricted unvaccinated individuals from entering liquor or cannabis stores, a new limitation for those refusing the jab.

“The idea is that we incentivize vaccinations by limiting the activities that the unvaccinated can engage in, and that both incentivizes vaccine vaccination, but also prevents those people from being in public places,” Hardcastle told Global News.

As of Jan. 1, 2022, Alberta lagged behind most other provinces and territories in percentage of the population with one and two doses of vaccine, according to data gathered by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Provincial data released on Thursday shows 89.5 per cent of Albertans over 12 have one dose, 85.9 per cent of adult Albertans have two doses and 30.7 per cent of adults in the province have received a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

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Hardcastle doubted this provincial government would reinstate the then-dormant mandatory vaccination clause into Alberta’s Public Health Act.

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“The premier has said they won’t. It also doesn’t align well with their political ideology,” the U of C professor said.

“I do think, though, that the province may potentially consider at some point expanding the restriction exemption program or further narrowing where those who aren’t vaccinated can go and what they can do in order to try to limit the spread of Omicron to the point that it overwhelms hospitals.”

Hardcastle added municipalities could further strengthen their policies and bylaws to require proof of vaccination for areas they have jurisdiction over, like in libraries, recreation facilities or some services.

But she doesn’t see the federal government implementing a national vaccine mandate in the immediate future.

“I think that would be difficult for them to do. They could attempt to use their criminal law power or their power to deal with national emergencies, but I think that that would be politically difficult.”

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Hardcastle pointed to the removal of the mandatory vaccination clause from Alberta’s legislation as possible prologue for provincial action.

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“They could have left (mandatory vaccination) in, it was already dormant,” she said. “But in taking that power out of the act, the premier really used that as a political talking point and said, ‘You know, we will never mandate vaccinations in Alberta. That’s not something we will do. We believe in individual freedoms’ and we heard the same thing from him today.”

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