Chiefs in the N.W.T. await consultation on federal vaccine mandate for air passengers

Canada's vaccine mandate for air travellers kicks in on Oct. 30, but the federal government says it plans to consult on exceptions so people in small, remote community can travel for essential services.

Transport Canada planning to make accommodations for essential travel in small, remote communities

Alfonz Nitsiza, chief of Whati, N.W.T., says the federal government needs to clearly communicate with N.W.T. communities about the incoming vaccine mandate for air travellers. (Mark Rendell/CBC)

With the federal government's vaccine mandate for air travellers kicking in soon, chiefs in small Northwest Territories communities say they're waiting to hear about possible exceptions to the rules.

By Oct. 30, most Canadians will need to be fully vaccinated if they're planning to hop on a plane. There will be a month of flexibility where people who are in the process of being vaccinated can show a valid COVID-19 molecular test, according to a recent Oct. 6 update from the federal government.

There will also be provisions for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travellers in small, remote communities to fly to access essential medical, health or social services, but details of those exceptions have not yet been released.

Transport Canada says it's developing those exceptions through consultation with Indigenous organizations and provincial and territorial governments.

Chiefs of several First Nations in the N.W.T. told CBC News they haven't heard from the federal government yet.

Need for clarity

Whatì Chief Alfonz Nitsiza said Transport Canada needs to be clear about any exemptions they decide on, and about the possible impacts of the vaccine rules.

"Whatever they do, as far as regulation, it will impact everybody in the north in small, remote communities," Nitsiza said.

Although Whatì will soon have road access thanks to the Tłı̨chǫ all-season road, the community has historically been fly-in only during summer months.

Nitsiza said if exceptions are made to the vaccine mandate for air passengers, they should be few and far between.

"Depending on what the circumstances are, the way I look at it is there should be no exception at all for people that travel. They should be vaccinated, period," he said.

Whatì recently emerged from a COVID-19 outbreak that peaked at 33 cases in the community of about 470. Nitsiza said the community got that outbreak under control by communicating with each other, listening and looking after one another – advice he says came from elders.

"I think we need to do that for the whole country – listen to each other, and help and respect one another. And we'll get through this."

Consultation needed

Chief Wilbert Kochon of Colville Lake's Behdzi Ahda First Nation told CBC News the federal government needs to seek out advice from smaller communities in particular so their needs are not overlooked.

His preference is for people to have a choice whether to get the vaccine. Any mandate should take into account the specific situations of travellers. People dealing with residential school trauma, for instance, may have a fear of needles that prevents them from being vaccinated.

Wilbert Kochon, chief of Behdezi Ahda First Nation in Colville Lake, said any vaccine mandate should take into account the specific situations of travellers. (John Last/CBC)

"Those kinds of things, they've really got to think about – it really traumatized them, that's all. That's the one thing they really have to look at, and if it does [affect them], they should exempt them from that," he said.

Kochon said he wants the federal government to reach out to community leaders so those leaders can then ask their people what they want to see for exemptions.

"They should start from the smaller communities and then start working their way up. I think that would be the best way," he said.

Transport Canada did not respond to questions about its engagement process for the vaccine mandate exemptions, only stating the government is "committed to continuing engagement" about exemptions.

When asked for more details about the exemptions or when more details may be available, Transport Canada cited the Oct. 6 update and said more details would be available after it does its consultation.