Cardy hopes to pass contentious vaccination bill by summer
Education minister optimistic COVID-19 pandemic raised awareness of importance of vaccines
New Brunswick's education minister says his contentious bill on mandatory vaccinations for school children will be back up for debate and a final vote when the legislature reconvenes later this month.
Dominic Cardy says the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of vaccinations and he's optimistic that will help ensure passage of the legislation before the summer.
"We're ready to go to have a last discussion in the legislature and then a final vote, so I'm certainly optimistic it'll get passed and we can get ready to implement it in September 2021," he said.
"It's certainly my hope and it's on the order paper and I'm optimistic it will pass."
Cardy, who has gained national media attention for his early moves on COVID-19, said he believes the spread of the coronavirus and its impact on society has driven home the importance of vaccines.
"A bill for school-age children seems like common sense at this point in a way that perhaps it might not have a year or so ago," he said.
Cardy's bill was introduced long before the COVID-19 pandemic and has no specific reference to the coronavirus, for which no vaccine is expected to exist until next year.
The bill would eliminate philosophical, religious and other non-medical exemptions from an existing requirement that all school children be vaccinated. 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.
Cardy pointed out that when he introduced the bill a year ago, he spoke about New Brunswickers being lucky to live at a time "where death and disability from infectious diseases is something we've largely been able to forget.
"Of course that's not the world we're in any more, and no one's going to forget the last few months," he said. "I think the importance of vaccines has become a lot more central in people's minds. … Look at what a world without a vaccine for one disease looks like."
MLAs undecided after hearings
An earlier version of the bill had public support but was harshly criticized by anti-vaccination activists who testified during three days of committee hearings last summer.
In the wake of those hearings, some MLAs from all four parties in the legislature said they were undecided whether to support 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 that includes the use of the notwithstanding clause from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That would exempt the bill from a Charter challenge on a number of grounds, including sections that guarantee freedom of religion.
Liberal party position unchanged
The Opposition Liberals said they opposed use of the notwithstanding clause and would vote as a bloc against the bill unless it was removed. Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee said that's still the party's position.
He said if the clause is removed from the bill, Liberal MLAs will be allowed to vote their consciences on the bill. In that circumstance, he said the legislation will probably have enough combined Progressive Conservative and Liberal support to pass.
"This pandemic sheds more light on the need for vaccinations and it could very well increase public support for vaccinations," McKee said.
McKee said the bill doesn't need to use the notwithstanding clause to resist a constitutional challenge, though Premier Blaine Higgs said last fall the province's legal advice was that the legislation would be struck down without it.
MLAs from the Green and People's Alliance parties also said last fall they were uncomfortable with the use of the notwithstanding clause.
Alliance Leader Kris Austin and MLA Michelle Conroy said through a spokesperson Wednesday they still have those concerns. Colleague Rick DeSaulniers declined to comment.
Cardy said Wednesday while the province will "use every power to ensure the health and safety of our students," it is "open" to removing the clause.
Without a majority, the PC government can't pass legislation without support from other parties.
Cardy said he hasn't had time during the pandemic to canvass MLAs about where they stand now but said before it began there were "a lot of offline discussions that happened that I think were really positive."
His bill was linked to plans by Public Health to develop a more comprehensive vaccination registry in time for when the bill would take effect in the fall of 2021.
He said he wasn't worried that the registry would be delayed because of Public Health officials dealing with the pandemic.
"One of the things I tried to build in was a good amount of lag time for unexpected events," he said, adding that a vaccination registry will probably be a high priority because of the coronavirus. "I have no reason to expect we won't be fully ready to go by September 2021."