Each week leading up to the federal election on Sept. 20, First Policy Response will highlight news and debates about recovery-related policy issues that surface on the campaign trail. We’ll recap the policy proposals put forward by the main national parties and hear from researchers and practitioners about what it will take for those ideas to work on the ground.

One big issue: Proof of vaccination

The background

COVID-19 vaccination has been deployed repeatedly as a wedge issue during the election campaign. Protesters railing against vaccination have disrupted campaign events for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and more recently raised public ire by staging noisy and disruptive demonstrations outside of hospitals across the country. Trudeau has tried to link these protesters to his Conservative rival, Erin O’Toole, who is not requiring his candidates to get vaccinated. However, there appears to be more overlap with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada — several protesters at Liberal campaign stops were spotted in PPC gear, the president of a local PPC riding association was charged with throwing gravel at Trudeau, and Bernier has violated public health orders around quarantines and opposed vaccination and mask-wearing as violations of Canadians’ freedoms. (The Constitution does allow governments to limit basic freedoms if they can show a restriction is reasonable and necessary.)

Immunization records are actually a provincial responsibility. Indeed, since this summer, several provinces — including Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario — have announced plans for their own proof-of-vaccination regimes for non-essential spaces such as shops, gyms and restaurants. However, the federal government can require vaccination for people working in areas where it has jurisdiction, such as the federal civil service, on domestic flights and trains, or at international borders. It can also offer support to lower levels of government to implement their vaccination programs.

According to Government of Canada data, more than 73 per cent of the population, and 84 per cent of people older than 12, have received at least one vaccine dose as of Sept. 4. Nearly 68 per cent, or 77 per cent of those over 12, are fully vaccinated.

 

Where the parties stand

Liberal Party: The Liberals would implement a national vaccine passport, and require federal civil servants and passengers on domestic transportation to be vaccinated. They would also provide $1 billion to provinces and territories to help them roll out a ​​proof of vaccination system for non-essential spaces, and bring in legislation to shield businesses and organizations that require proof of vaccination from legal challenge.

Conservative Party: O’Toole has consistently said he would not make vaccination mandatory, and that the party would not require vaccination for federal civil servants, travellers or people entering the country, instead relying on rapid testing. However, he has set a goal of fully vaccinating 90 per cent of eligible Canadians, through paid time off for employees, providing transportation to vaccine clinics, a national marketing campaign and targeted information to address vaccine hesitancy among groups with a history of being disenfranchised by the health system. The platform promises to support the provinces with logistical resources to deliver vaccines and booster shots, and to make rapid tests more widely available.

NDP: The party would roll out a national vaccine passport, with $1 billion to increase vaccination rates, and support provinces and territories to “create targeted, inclusive programs that will remove the remaining barriers and help those who are still unvaccinated get their shots.”

Green Party: There is no specific reference to vaccine mandates in the party platform, but Leader Annamie Paul has questioned how proposed mandatory vaccination plans would accommodate people with “legitimate reasons” for not getting vaccinated, such as “whether those be medical conditions, religious or cultural convictions, or that live in rural communities with limited access to either vaccination clinics or information that addresses their concerns.”

 

The reaction

The case for vaccine passports is obvious: After 18 months of repeated lockdowns and restrictions, everyone is anxious to get back to their normal routines, but the Delta variant is driving a fourth wave that is delaying a full reopening. Delta spreads much more easily than previous strains of COVID-19, but vaccinated people are far less likely to contract the virus or become seriously ill from it. The vast majority of Canadian residents who are vaccinated are understandably eager for something to be done to stop the remaining 30 per cent of the population from continuing to spread the virus. 

But there are still concerns about how such a program would be implemented. For starters, we’ve seen over and over that the pandemic affects marginalized groups — such as racialized, low-income and immigrant communities — worse than it does others, and we’ve learned how well-intentioned policies can actually serve to reinforce inequity. Observers fear the same thing could happen with vaccine passports. According to Dr. Danyaal Raza, a physician and health advocate with Unity Health Toronto:

“Communities already excluded from many public and private spaces, like undocumented migrants who fear deportation and communities that often lack formal ID such as those who are houseless, are at risk of being further marginalized. Vaccine passports are critical and must be rolled out with targeted supports including community outreach funding, a secure paper passport option and ongoing vaccination support.”

Seher Shafiq of North York Community House, who is also an FPR editor, offers a similar observation when it comes to immigrant and refugee communities:

“Some populations can have a mistrust in government for a variety of reasons — particularly immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who come from authoritarian or unstable regimes. In the immigrant- and refugee-serving sector, we often see clients hesitant to share personal information with government authorities because of a lack of trust due to experiences with governments in their home countries.
I hope that the vaccine passport rollout takes an equitable approach and finds a way to address these barriers. This could include educational campaigns in different languages to assure people that the personal information they submit is safe, secure, and will not be misused.”

Others such as Nour Abdelaal of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Cybersecure Policy Exchange point out that with most passports expected to be primarily digital in format, those who lack digital devices or expertise are at risk of exclusion:

“We know that more Indigenous peoples, older adults, low-income individuals and people with disabilities do not have a home internet connection or smartphone — tools that are needed to access digital proofs of vaccination and register for protection statuses efficiently online. Targeted outreach, training and technical support for those facing greater digital challenges should be prioritized to protect vulnerable populations, who actually face greater risks of contracting COVID-19.”

Bianca Wylie and Sean McDonald of Digital Public warn that by focusing too much on digital solutions to public health problems, policy-makers run the risk of overlooking the bigger picture:

“Governments that implement vaccine passports should be equally committed to the wide range of public health interventions we need, including free N-95 masks for all, easy access to testing, ventilating public spaces and access to justice mechanisms for digital rights issues. But they’re not. Whether it’s the breakthrough of Delta, the lack of vaccine access for children, or the reality that there will always be immunocompromised people that are ineligible, we need to invest in broad measures that create dignified access to vital services.”

Meanwhile, Yuan Stevens of the Cybersecure Policy Exchange adds that there are also security risks inherent in any digital identification system that could put users’ privacy at risk:

“As regions and countries roll out vaccine passports, it’s crucial to prioritize the security of these tools. Hire a team tasked with assessing and mitigating security threats. Provide robust disclosure pipelines — and legal protection — for external people who disclose security flaws.”

In addition to the risks a vaccine passport system may pose to the general public, there are also concerns about how it would affect the people tasked with enforcing it — in particular, small business owners who have already struggled to stay afloat during repeated lockdowns, and retail and service workers, many of whom are already working with low pay and limited benefits. Food journalist Corey Mintz, who has been reporting on the challenges facing the food service industry during the pandemic, told us:

“Many provincial governments left businesses to develop and enforce their own safety protocols. At this stage, businesses need a clear proof of vaccination system that works across provinces and takes legitimate medical exemptions into account, in order to implement policies intended to protect the safety of their employees and customers. And workers, if they haven’t gotten a vaccination yet, deserve paid time off to do so.”

Karla Briones, an Ottawa entrepreneur who works with immigrants launching their own businesses, wrote about her concerns in the Ottawa Citizen:

“Policing this is exactly what I’m scared of. If we are getting spat on for reminding people to wear a flimsy mask, what reaction can we expect from those who don’t want to share their personal vaccination information? . . . What type of training and extra security is the government going to provide to business owners so that we don’t become the first line of casualties in such a divisive topic? So that we don’t get sued or assaulted while we struggle to keep our businesses alive.”

She calls on the government to do more to include business owners in their decision-making processes.

More from the campaign trail

Long-term care

The Liberals said they would spend $9 billion to help the long-term care sector that was ravaged by the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. That would triple the amount promised in the April budget. The proposal would train 50,000 more workers and raise their wages to $25/hour, and implement new national standards. Because long-term care is a provincial responsibility, the federal governments would have to reach agreements with the provinces to make the changes.

Like the Liberals, the NDP has pledged better pay and working conditions for long-term care workers and a set of national standards. The party also said it would end private, for-profit long-term care.

The Conservative platform earmarks $3 billion for infrastructure funding for long-term care over the next three years. They also pledged to add more care workers, in part by accepting more immigrants working in long-term care or home care, but didn’t specify a number. Rather than introducing national standards, the Conservatives would work with the province to develop best practices.

The Green Party also wants to eliminate for-profit long-term care and improve working conditions for care workers, as well as bringing long-term into the Canada Health Act and developing and enforcing national standards. It would prioritize aging in place to allow more seniors to remain at home, by establishing a dedicated Seniors’ Care Transfer to provide “transformative investment” to provinces and territories for improvements to home and community care.

Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at Ryerson University’s National Institute on Ageing, said he was looking to see more details from the parties:

“While all major parties are proposing much-needed investments in long-term care, there continues to be a lack of clarity on critical logistics. How would federal parties work with provinces and territories to ensure meaningful reform occurs equitably in communities from coast to coast to coast? Across the political spectrum, we have also seen a disappointing lack of commitment to adequately resource homecare, which is an integral part of the larger solution to Canada’s long-term care crisis.”

Dr. Shara Nauth, chief geriatrics fellow at Western University, also cautioned that too much focus on long-term care facilities could stymie much-needed improvements to homecare:

“There’s no doubt that increasing capital in long-term care is essential. The question is: will it be enough? Canadian older adults have made it clear that they need and want to age in place — and other countries have demonstrated that this is a more cost-effective solution. Similarly, it is excellent that [personal support worker] compensation is addressed — but if wages only increase in the LTC sector, the already drained homecare workforce will be decimated. Caring for older adults requires a comprehensive approach — we’ve been approaching this in silos for too long. We need a party that will create an integrated plan that stops focusing on long-term care beds and is willing instead to invest in care where Canadians need it most.”

Afghan refugee intake

Just as the election was called, the crisis in Afghanistan reached a tipping point, with the Taliban taking control of the government and thousands of desperate citizens trying to flee the country — including interpreters and other locals who had helped the Canadian military during its operations in the country, and whose lives were now in danger because of their involvement.

The governing Liberals initially said Canada would take in 20,000 Afghan refugees, but doubled that number to 40,000 during the campaign. Their platform also pledges to “expand the new immigration stream for human rights defenders and work with civil society groups to ensure safe passage and resettlement of people under threat, including from Afghanistan.” The Conservatives say they will take in at least 20,000 Afghans in addition to those who worked with Canadian forces, and work with allies to help Afghans trying to flee the country. The NDP and Green Party have both endorsed the demands of the Canadian Campaign for Afghan Peace, which include resettling at least 40,000 Afghans; identifying the Hazara ethnic group as a vulnerable group; eliminating barriers to applying for immigration; and increasing funding to resettlement agencies and Afghan-led organizations in Canada to support Afghan newcomers.

Anna Triandafyllidou, the Canada Excellence Research Chair on Migration and Integration at Ryerson University, said that Canada’s experience with Syrian refugee settlement has taught us that private sponsorship can be highly effective; “However, if the sponsorship arrangement breaks down, the refugees can find themselves in a difficult situation.” She adds:

“We have also learned that private sponsors need more training and support from government and immigration professionals in terms of how to prepare for their sponsorship, what to expect, and how to deal with crisis with their sponsored refugees or within the sponsorship team. In addition, there has been some very interesting research pointing to the importance of matching refugees with sponsors at the same phase in their lives. For example, a young family with kids may understand their challenges better than a group of young, single professionals or students.”

Do you work on the front lines of policy issues — such as child care, long-term care, small business, mental health, poverty reduction, creative work, settlement services or anything else? We would love to hear from you. Send us your thoughts about how the campaign promises would affect you and the people you serve at policyresponse@ryerson.ca.

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Stephanie MacLellan is the managing editor of First Policy Response.