New Brunswick

MLAs vote to drop notwithstanding clause from mandatory vaccination bill

A committee of MLAs has voted to remove the controversial notwithstanding clause from a bill on mandatory vaccinations.

Contentious legislation seeks to remove religious, philosophical exemptions for school children

A committee of MLAs have voted to remove the notwithstanding clause from Education Minister Dominic Cardy's mandatory vaccination bill. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

A committee of MLAs has voted to remove the controversial notwithstanding clause from a bill on mandatory vaccinations.

Members of all parties, including the governing Progressive Conservatives, voted unanimously to strike the clause, which would have protected the proposed law from future constitutional challenges in court.

That could improve the odds that the bill will eventually pass, since some Liberal MLAs have said they could only vote yes to the legislation if the clause was removed.

The bill would eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions from the requirement that children be vaccinated if they attend public schools. It will take effect for the 2021-22 school year.

Victoria-La Vallée Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson introduced the amendment to remove the clause after accusing Education Minister Dominic Cardy of moving too fast to take away people's rights without looking at other options such as education campaigns.

Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson says use of the notwithstanding clause creates 'a slippery slope' and other alternatives should be pursued.

"Once the freedom is gone it's gone for good, and if we're going to take away rights and freedoms, we better have tried every other alternative and we better have a darned good reason," Chiasson said. 

"I fear that we're headed down a slippery slope that we don't need to head down at this time, because there are alternatives. I for one just won't be part of it." 

Chiasson emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not for his party.

All Liberal MLAs are allowed a free vote on the legislation, and Premier Blaine Higgs has said all PC members, including cabinet ministers, can also vote their consciences.

PC MLA Bruce Northrup has already said he will vote against the legislation, while other Tories have said they will wait to see the final amended version of the bill before deciding.

The legislation would allow Public Heath officials to establish a list of required vaccinations. 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.

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.

Controversial clause

Last fall, Premier Blaine Higgs said government lawyers had concluded the bill would not be constitutional unless it invoked the notwithstanding clause, which would exempt it from sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including those on freedom of religion.

But after Liberal objections, Cardy said he'd be willing to take it out to win more votes for the legislation. No one from the government spoke against Chiasson's amendment Tuesday.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says the current exemptions are 'often abused.' (CBC)

Chiasson, the party's education critic, pointed out that last year, Dr. Noni MacDonald, a well-known Nova Scotia pediatrician, called mandatory vaccine laws "a simple solution to a complex problem." 

She called for better education campaigns to persuade parents, something Chiasson said Cardy should try before he passes a bill infringing on rights.

"Why would we not try that before we went down the road of mandatory vaccinations?" he asked.

Cardy responded that the existing system already violates the rights of children who can't go to school because they have weakened immune systems and the risk of an infection is too great.

More vaccinations would create herd immunity that would make it safe for them, he said.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin says he's struggling on which way to vote. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin inched closer to a clear statement Tuesday on how he'll vote, saying he'll be "hard-pressed" to support something that in his view violates parental rights.

But he concluded his questions to Cardy without declaring what he'll do, saying he was "really struggling" with how to vote. 

'This is a balancing of rights'

Cardy acknowledged Tuesday that it's still not possible to provide a clear picture of vaccination rates in schools. There is no breakdown of how many exemptions are religious, how many are philosophical and how many are for valid medical reasons. 

But he said the existing exemptions are "often abused," with people claiming medical reasons when there are none or citing supposed religious prohibitions to vaccinations that don't exist.

He also admitted that parental rights would be limited by the bill but he said the education system already limits other rights when it prevents students from bringing weapons, or even peanut butter, to school. 

"This is a balancing of rights," he said. 

Tuesday's committee session adjourned without a final vote on the bill. Debate is expected to resume Wednesday afternoon.

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