New Brunswick

Parent hopes mandatory COVID-19 vaccination bill becomes election issue

For Jessica Bleasdale, there are short-term and long-term worries about her children returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy's mandatory measles vaccination bill was defeated 22-20 in June

If Public Health officials give the green light to whatever vaccine is available for COVID-19, Jessica Bleasdale said she would support it. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

For Jessica Bleasdale, there are short-term and long-term worries about her children returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The questions in the coming weeks are about the immediate logistics: buses, masks, classes and lunches.  

But looking ahead to next year, Bleasdale wonders what rules the province will put in place for the province's schools once a coronavirus vaccine is available.

"It's a pretty important issue for me," she said.

If Public Health officials give the green light to whatever vaccine is available, "then I am absolutely for a mandatory vaccine."

Vaccine would 'protect society' 

Bleasdale closely watched the debate earlier this year over non-medical exemptions to vaccination requirements and was disappointed when Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill was defeated in the legislature.

She said there's no valid argument for allowing philosophical and religious exemptions to the requirement.

"I don't ask for anyone to give me a philosophical pass to not wear a seatbelt, to not stop at a red light, to not stop at a stop sign. These are things that we do to protect society and protect ourselves," she said.

But, frustratingly, she's having a hard time finding out whether her local election candidates agree with her — other than People's Alliance incumbent Rick DeSaulniers, who voted no to the bill. 

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said the goal of the bill was to immunize enough children to create herd immunity so that the small number of children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons would still be protected from an outbreak. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Among the others, "none of them are providing a solid answer, if I'm being frank," Bleasdale said.

In an election campaign triggered in part by Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs's desire for "stability" in the fight against COVID-19, there's been little discussion of whether a new version of Cardy's controversial legislation would be needed.

Parties don't commit to legislation 

"Until we see a vaccine, we won't know what will be required to make it effective, which means we're talking about hypotheticals when it comes to making it mandatory, for students or for anyone else,"  Higgs said in a statement.

"Our party will continue to be guided by evidence and science when it comes to vaccines and every aspect of our response to COVID-19." 

The Liberals also avoided saying whether they'd commit to legislation but suggested an education campaign would be a possible option.

"The overall objective should be to increase the number of people being vaccinated," campaign co-chair Rob McKee said in a statement.

Green Leader David Coon, who abstained during the final vote on Cardy's bill, said he'd support getting rid of exemptions in the case of COVID-19.

"For me, it's straightforward," he said. "This is a public health emergency."

From left, Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau, party leader David Coon and MLA Megan Mitton, pictured at the New Brunswick legislature, all abstained from voting on the controversial mandatory vaccination bill. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But Coon couldn't say for sure how other Green MLAs would vote if that required a change to legislation.

"We've got a lot of candidates, and I haven't canvassed them all on that," I hope that they would, but I haven't canvassed them all." 

Meanwhile, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he would still need to be persuaded that vaccination rates are too low — the same reason he gave for concluding Cardy's bill went too far. 

"You have to convince me that there is a significant health risk with not enough kids receiving a potential COVID vaccination, and that's what was lacking in the previous bill," said Austin, who voted no along with his two fellow Alliance MLAs.

"If the data shows that not enough kids are being vaccinated, I think you've got to review it again."

Opponents argue bill wasn't clear 

Cardy's bill would have eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions from the policy, which says children must be vaccinated to attend school. Only kids with valid medical reasons would have been exempt.

But because there wasn't a complete set of data on vaccination rates in schools provincewide, opponents of the bill argued it wasn't clear the measure was needed.

Coon tried to amend the bill to give Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell the power to put the law into effect when vaccination rates had fallen to a dangerously low level, but that amendment was defeated.

The bill was defeated in a 22-20 vote that saw all Green MLAs abstain, all Alliance MLAs vote no, and the PC and Liberal caucuses split.

If the bill had passed, children not vaccinated for any reason other than health concerns would not have been allowed to go to public schools starting in the fall of 2021. (Paul Vernon/The Associated Press)

Coon said his idea "to enable government to remove exemptions when necessary" would apply to a coronavirus vaccine as well.

"It certainly would be necessary in the case of COVID-19," he said.

Coon wouldn't say whether Green MLAs would have a free vote on a bill to eliminate non-medical exemptions from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

"We're jumping the gun here," he said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

NDP Leader Mackenzie Thomason said last month he would have voted yes to Cardy's bill and he denounced the Greens for not taking a position on it. An NDP campaign official says he'd support a similar bill for COVID-19 as long as regulators had approved the vaccine.

In a statement, Public Health said it is monitoring COVID-19 vaccine research, and "we will wait to see the outcome of this research and also recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) before making any recommendations." 


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.