OTTAWA — A new Liberal pledge to require certain agriculture and transportation workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is facing resistance and questions from Manitoba employers.
"We will not comply and will organize a mass movement against the government if this is how far they want to take this," wrote Joshua Wurtz, manager of Old Mill Feeds.
He was reacting to a Tuesday notice by federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, on an intent to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for the sectors Ottawa regulates, starting in early 2022.
The vast majority of private workplaces falls under provincial regulation, but about six per cent of those workers are federally regulated due to historical reasons, or because their business crosses provincial lines. That includes banks and most trucking and courier companies, as well as grain mills and broadcasters.
The Tuesday announcement builds on rules that already apply to planes and trains, as well as an existing vaccine mandate for public servants, the military and RCMP.
Bureaucrats have launched a consultation that touches on how prepared private employers are to adopt such a policy, how long it should remain in place, and the logistics around how they would record vaccination status.
Ottawa has garnered initial reactions from various sectors. Banks and telecommunications companies raised concerns about labour shortages, as did the trucking industry, which asked that Canada’s approach align with the U.S.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance did not respond to an interview request, but the union representing many of them said it’s taking part in the consultations.
"We encourage our members who work in trucking — and all other industries — to get vaccinated for obvious public health reasons. Those who choose not to do so should contact their local unions should they suffer any consequences as a result of their decision," wrote Teamsters Canada spokesman Stéphane Lacroix.
"By law, we have a duty to represent our members regardless of their opinion on the subject. Our local unions will deal with any issue pertaining to vaccination on the local level."
Federal labour policies would normally affect employees of First Nations bands, as their workplaces are federally regulated, even though some communities have low vaccine uptake. But Ottawa has opted against including Indigenous governing bodies in the policy, unless they opt to adopt it.
"Indigenous partners shared that vaccine hesitancy in some communities may come from historical trauma and raised questions about the Government of Canada’s authority to mandate vaccinations," reads a consultation paper from O’Regan’s department.
"Mandatory vaccination requirements would likely elicit negative reactions from First Nations partners and meaningful engagements would be important for the implementation of such requirements."
Interview requests for the three Manitoba grand chiefs were not answered Tuesday, likely due to an ongoing Assembly of First Nations summit.
In the public service, bureaucrats sign an attestation that they are vaccinated, or provide an explanation for not being immunized. They can be punished under existing rules about lying at work. Civil servants who work from home have no exemption from the policy.
But private workplaces might be required to actually gather proof of vaccination, and might have flexibility in the policy for those who work at home.
Wade Sobkowich, head of the Western Grain Elevator Association, said his industry wants clarity on everything from whether Ottawa will compensate employers who have a sudden drop in staffing, to how they can avoid getting ensnared in human rights and privacy complaints.
"We wonder how the government will address and manage key rights-based concerns," said Sobkowich, whose group is neutral on the looming policy.
"We won’t go so far as to say we’re supportive or non-supportive of it. But the devil is in the detail, and these questions really need to be answered in the short term, if companies are expected to comply."
Others in the agriculture sector are less comfortable with the idea.
Wurtz, whose feed mill is located in Elie, 40 kilometres west of Winnipeg, was upset by the policy, saying he hadn’t been consulted.
"It is our God-given right to be in control of our body and health," Wurtz wrote to the Free Press.
"The government… was put into place to serve the people, and they have no power over us, to demand any of this. This is insane. And if you think otherwise, then you are insane as well."
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