New Brunswick

Much-anticipated mandatory vaccination debate begins in N.B. legislature

Education Minister Dominic Cardy has warned his fellow MLAs that the issue of mandatory vaccinations won’t be going away.

Review of contentious Bill 11 extended into Wednesday

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

Education Minister Dominic Cardy has warned his fellow MLAs that the issue of mandatory vaccinations won't be going away.

Cardy made the comments as a committee of the legislature began a long-awaited consideration of Bill 11, his legislation to eliminate philosophical and religious exemptions from the requirement for schoolchildren.

"When faith in science and institutions is coming under more threat and pressure than at probably any other point in our lifetimes, this bill is a firewall to protect our schoolchildren," Cardy said.

"Because this won't be the end of the discussion. Vote yes or no on this bill, if there's a vaccine for COVID-19, how will we have that conversation? These are the problems we're all going to face as legislators. The question now is what we do about it."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Tuesday his bill is a 'firewall to protect our schoolchildren.' (Submitted by the Government of New Brunswick)

The committee's review of the bill is expected to continue Wednesday. 

Bill 11 would eliminate all non-medical exemptions to the requirement for vaccinations, including those on religious and philosophical grounds.

An earlier version of 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.

The legislation would apply to a list of vaccines established by Health Canada. 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.

The first version of the bill 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.

Fairness questioned

On Tuesday afternoon, Liberal MLA and education critic Chuck Chiasson questioned the logic behind some aspects of the bill, such as the fact it applies to children but not to adults working in schools.

"If you're a child and you're not vaccinated, you cannot attend school," he said. "If you're an adult and you're not vaccinated, you can attend school.

"To me it just doesn't sound like something that is — I could say — fair. It's not affording exactly the outcome that the minister is looking for." 

Liberal education critic Chuck Chiasson said he was frustrated with the lack of information coming from the education minister.

He also said it was hard to decide on how to support the bill when Cardy, citing privacy rules, wouldn't provide a breakdown of how many exemptions are medical, how many are philosophical and how many are religious.

At one point Chiasson said he was frustrated with how long Cardy was taking to answer his questions. 

"I don't need all this pomp and ceremony around each question that I ask," he said. "I find it kind of disturbing that I have to keep digging and digging just to get that straight answer." 

Cardy explained that because of physical distancing requirements, he was relying on staff to help him answer questions via a digital device and that's why his replies were taking so long. 

Notwithstanding clause

In his questions, Chiasson did not broach a key issue for the Liberal opposition: the bill's invocation of the notwithstanding clause from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which would shield the bill from a constitutional challenge.

Both the Liberals and the Greens have said they will try to remove the clause.

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. That would exempt the bill from a charter challenge on a number of grounds, including sections that guarantee freedom of religion.

Premier Blaine Higgs is giving all his MLAs, including his cabinet ministers, a free vote on the bill. The Liberals are expected to vote in unison against the bill if the notwithstanding clause stays in but will be able to vote freely if it comes out.

The Greens and the People's Alliance have also raised concerns about the use of the notwithstanding clause.

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