New Brunswick

PC MLA won't back vaccination bill, further jeopardizing safe passage in current form

At least one Progressive Conservative MLA has decided to vote against Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s mandatory vaccination legislation.

More PC MLAs express concern over controversial Bill 11

PC MLA Bruce Northrup said he couldn't vote for the bill in its current form after hearing from his constituents. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

At least one Progressive Conservative MLA has decided to vote against Education Minister Dominic Cardy's mandatory vaccination legislation. 

Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins member Bruce Northrup says he doesn't see any way he will change his mind on the bill, which would eliminate all non-medical exemptions to the requirement for vaccinations, including those on religious and philosophical grounds.

"I can't do that to the people that live in my area and the people I've heard from," Northrup said.

"I have struggled with this for quite a while, but at the end of the day, I can't vote for Bill 11 as it sits right now."

Last summer, during public hearings dominated by opponents of the bill, Northrup called the issue "probably the biggest struggle I've had, personally" during 13 years in the legislature.

Now he said he will definitely oppose the legislation. He said he's not comfortable telling people they must vaccinate their children or be prevented from sending them to school. 

Others on the fence

Some other PC MLAs said Wednesday they were undecided.

Carleton MLA Stewart Fairgrieve said he was "waiting to see what the bill ends up looking like."

"I can't say right now because we haven't seen the final wording," said Environment and Local Government Minister Jeff Carr.

Environment and Local Government Minister Jeff Carr is among the PC MLAs unsure which they will vote on Bill 11. (CBC)

Both MLAs said they expect amendments to the bill during a legislative committee's review.

That process began Tuesday, but the committee worked on other bills Wednesday, leaving no time for the vaccination legislation.

Northrup said there aren't any possible changes to the legislation that would cause him to rethink his opposition.

"I'm convinced I'm making the right decision," he said.

Non-compliant students would be barred from school

Cardy's bill was introduced long before the COVID-19 pandemic and the bill has no specific reference to the coronavirus, for which no vaccine is expected to exist until next year at the earliest.

The legislation would require vaccinations on a list to be established by Public Health officials. Children not vaccinated for any reason other than health concerns would not be allowed to go to public schools starting in the fall of 2021.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said during Tuesday's legislative sitting his bill is a 'firewall to protect our schoolchildren.' (CBC)

The goal is to immunize enough children to create herd immunity so that the small number of children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons will still be protected from an outbreak.

The first version of the bill was harshly criticized by anti-vaccination activists, who testified during three days of committee hearings last summer. MLAs from all four parties in the legislature expressed doubts about the bill at the time.

Northrup is the PC whip, so normally his role in caucus is to ensure the party's MLAs are present and ready to support a government bill. But Premier Blaine Higgs has given all PC members, including ministers, a free vote.

Northrup said there have been discussions of the bill in caucus, but he's not sure whether enough MLAs will vote for it to ensure it passes.

"Some are for, some are against, some are undecided," he said. "There's no real clear indication from the total caucus."

Counting votes

Even if all 20 PC MLAs voted for the bill, that wouldn't be enough for it to pass. There are 19 Liberals, three Greens, three People's Alliance members and one independent. The Speaker only votes to break a tie.

Some of those opposition MLAs will have to support the bill for it to pass. The Liberals say they'll vote against the legislation as a group unless a section invoking the Constitution's notwithstanding clause is removed.

The controversial Bill 11 seeks to eliminate philosophical and religious exemptions from the requirement for schoolchildren to be vaccinated. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

That would exempt the bill from a legal challenge on a number of grounds under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including sections that guarantee freedom of religion.

At last summer's hearings on the first version of the bill, one national anti-vaccination organization threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation if it passed.

Cardy responded with a new version of the bill last November citing the notwithstanding clause of the charter.

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