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Petition opposing Yukon's COVID-19 vaccine mandate triggers applause, disruptions in legislative assembly

The gallery of the Yukon legislative assembly was filled with dozens of people Monday who were in support of a petition opposing the territorial government's vaccine mandate.

The petition garnered more than 2,300 signatures

Jonas Smith stands outside the Yukon legislative assembly building in Whitehorse on Nov. 1, holding a petition opposing the territorial government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. More than 2,300 signed the petition, which was tabled in the legislative assembly later that day by a Yukon Party MLA. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Business in the Yukon legislative assembly had barely gotten underway Monday afternoon when deputy speaker Annie Blake called a recess after a man in the gallery stood up and began yelling in the direction of elected officials. 

His stand came shortly after three people walked out, one sprinkling expletives as he went, following Blake's reminder that masks were mandatory for members of the public in the gallery — a gallery, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, that was packed with dozens of people. 

The majority were there to support a petition organized by former federal Conservative candidate Jonas Smith, opposing the Yukon government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate set to come into effect at the end of the month. 

"I'm hoping to demonstrate to the government that their vaccine mandate is going to negatively affect thousands of Yukoners ... There has to be a better way to both protect our most vulnerable as well as respect people's own personal health choices," Smith told CBC News during a rally outside the legislative assembly building earlier in the day.

"... I don't believe in living in a two-tiered society. I believe that the world needs less discrimination and not more."

Smith added that he believed measures like staying home when sick, physical distancing and enforcing capacity limits in public spaces were already effective at keeping COVID-19 at bay.

People against the Yukon government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest outside the Yukon legislative assembly building in Whitehorse on Nov. 1, 2021. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Starting Nov. 30, all public servants and front-line healthcare workers except those with medical exemptions, must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Nov. 1, the government had not clarified what would happen to employees who don't have both shots, though Premier Sandy Silver said during a media availability that details would be coming shortly. 

The opposition Yukon Party has come out against the mandate, with leader Currie Dixon saying that while he believed COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, he didn't believe they should be mandatory.

The Yukon Employees' Union, which represents about 6,000 workers, has also expressed concerns, stating on its website that while "a vaccinated workforce [is] our best recourse for increased occupational health and safety," it "does not support options that lead to loss of pay, disciplinary action or that fail to consider all reasonable alternatives."

The union has since filed a grievance challenging the "arbitrary nature" of the government's announcement. 

Petition signed by more than 2,300 people

Smith's petition, signed by more than 2,300 people and tabled in the legislative assembly by Watson Lake MLA Patti McLeod, urges the Yukon government to "immediately rescind any and all requirements for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination." 

The tabling was met with a round of applause from people in the gallery, triggering another reminder from Blake that visitor participation was not permitted. 

It came after clerk Dan Cable spent the majority of the recess going back-and-forth with people in the gallery, explaining that while public attendance was encouraged, visitors still had to follow rules to ensure house business could keep moving.

A handful of visitors, between rounds of applause and cheering, questioned Cable on why people in the gallery had to be masked when the politicians seated a few metres away didn't. 

"Shouldn't they have to put on their masks when they're not speaking, just like how you have to put on a mask between bites at a restaurant?" a woman asked. 

"I'm not the one to debate this with," Cable responded.

(The Yukon has not required masks in restaurants or any indoor public spaces since Aug. 4. Previously, people were required to wear masks upon entering or when moving around a restaurant, but could remove their masks when seated.)

People gradually filtered out after McLeod tabled the petition, with only one other major interruption afterwards — a woman stood up and screamed, "What about housing?" after Yukon NDP leader Kate White highlighted the territory's opioid crisis in response to a ministerial statement from the premier about the Yukon Forum. 

Petition deserves response, Yukon Party leader says

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Silver said that while "anybody from the public is welcome to be in the gallery," the space "is not for participation," but for people to sit and listen. 

He also accused the Yukon Party of "undermining public health again" by tabling Smith's petition. 

"The new vaccine requirements that we announced are based upon those recommendations [from the acting chief medical officer of health] and they are there for public safety — they are there for Yukon just to be safe and protected," he said. 

"... We're going to continue ... to follow the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health as the Opposition decides which ones they're going to accept and not accept based upon political expediency."

Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon speaking to reporters after question period May 11, 2021. Dixon called the Yukon government's vaccine mandate 'politically motivated.' (Julien Gignac/CBC)

Dixon dismissed the premier's claim that his party was "undermining" public health.

"I've said this all along, that I believe that the introduction [of the vaccine mandate] … was one that was politically motivated and one that was made without any sort of details, any sort of implementation plan and any sort of consultation," he told reporters.

Dixon added that while he didn't agree "necessarily with every single word" in Smith's petition, he thought that "with that many people signing, it deserves to be heard and it deserves to have a response from the government, and that officials "have a duty to explain themselves."

With files from Mike Rudyk

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