The federal government says the vaccine mandate for truckers crossing into Canada from the United States will come into effect this Saturday as planned, despite an erroneous statement from the Canada Border Services Agency late Wednesday that said Canadian truck drivers would be exempt.

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The federal government says the vaccine mandate for truckers crossing into Canada from the United States will come into effect this Saturday as planned, despite an erroneous statement from the Canada Border Services Agency late Wednesday that said Canadian truck drivers would be exempt.

In a release late Thursday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, along with the transport and public safety ministers, say the CBSA statement from Wednesday evening was "provided in error," and that Canadian truckers must be vaccinated if they want to avoid quarantine and a prearrival molecular test, starting this weekend.

Government representatives offered no explanation for the incorrect information emailed to media more than 20 hours earlier.

But, even so, industry officials understood that what was thought to be an 11th-hour reversal was not going to quell industry’s concerns about keeping goods moving.

That’s because those same Canadian truckers who haul products back and forth across the border are facing a looming Jan. 22 deadline from the U.S. that would require truck drivers entering the U.S. to show proof of vaccination.

What was thought to be a surprise reversal from Ottawa was a result of intense pressure from industry groups representing the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) and a broad cross section of the manufacturing industry across the country.

Aaron Dolyniuk, the general manager of the Manitoba Trucking Association, a member of the CTA, said whatever the Canadian mandate is, Canadian truckers will have to deal with the U.S. regulations.

"Regardless of what the government of Canada does it will be required for truck drivers going into the U.S. to be vaccinated," Dolyniuk said. "It will effectively remove the exemption that has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic."

The uncertainty about the end of the exemption has exacerbated the already fraught supply chains that companies have been struggling to reel in.

Ron Koslowsky, the Manitoba vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said his members are worried.

"We have been getting lots of calls," he said. "Many have inventory sitting around waiting for the final components to complete production."

It is estimated that about two-thirds of the $650 billion in goods that travel across the Canada-U.S. border are carried by trucks.

Up to 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular cross-border trips will be sidelined as a result of the mandate, adding further bottlenecks and potential price hikes to the flow of goods ranging from produce to auto parts and medical devices, say the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations.

The federal Conservatives as well as trade groups representing oil, manufacturing and export companies called on Ottawa this week to postpone the impending deadline, which was announced on Nov. 19.

"Today’s reversal by the Trudeau government will only make Canada’s cost of living crisis worse by driving the price of basic essentials like groceries up," Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman said in a statement.

"At a time when inflation is already at a record high, Canadians will be the ones paying the price for the Trudeau government’s poor policy decisions."

Bison Transport CEO Rob Penner said the new rule will hamstring long-haulers, who carry the bulk of the roughly $24 billion in food products imported to Canada annually from the U.S., according to the United States Trade Representative.

"I don’t know if it’s grocery shelves empty, or just significantly more expensive meals," said Penner, whose Winnipeg-based fleet of 1,000 tractor-trailers carries retail goods and food and beverages into Canada.

And while the CTA and the MTA have explicitly supported vaccination for their industry, they believe that about 10 to 15 per cent of their drivers have not been vaccinated, mirroring the situation in Canada as a whole.

But the trucking industry has the extra added level of sensitivity in that they cannot afford to alienate drivers who are in such high demand right now.

Dolyniuk said he has heard Manitoba trucking firms offering incentives of as much as a few thousand dollars to encourage drivers to get vaccinated.

Dolyniuk said the industry estimates are that about 1,800 drivers in Manitoba and between 12,000 to 22,000 Canadian truck drivers would be affected by the mandates.

Bernie Driedger, the owner of Portage Transport, said whichever way the ruling goes it will not have much effect on him.

"Out of 120 drivers we only have two who are not vaccinated," he said. "Whether they (government regulators) want to change their minds every few days it does really affect us at this point."

About 40 per cent of U.S truck drivers could be affected but the fact is that the vast majority of products crossing the Canada-U.S. border are carried by Canadian truckers.

Many are frustrated that truckers should be targeted at this point in the pandemic considering that the 18-year high inflation rate is largely the result of supply chain disruptions.

Koslowsky said, "Why go after truckers? It is one of the least likely professions to spread the virus. They interact very little with the public as opposed to many other jobs. And why do it when there is already a huge supply chain problem. To me, that was just a completely ludicrous policy in the first place."

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Stephen Laskowski, president and chief executive of the CTA, was in contact with the American Trucking Associations (ATA), and that neither the CTA nor the ATA have any information as to how the U.S. mandate will be enforced.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

— with files from The Canadian Press

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.