Personal belief not grounds for vaccine mandate exemption, says head of human rights commission

The territory's human rights commission said there are certain exemptions protected by the N.W.T.'s Human Rights Act, but having a personal opinion about the vaccine is not one of them. The commission is ready to take workers' and employers' questions about the incoming vaccine mandates.

N.W.T. gov't. has mandated that many of its employees need to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30

The N.W.T. government said Monday that some of its employees who provide services to vulnerable members of the public in the healthcare, education and correction sectors, will have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The N.W.T. government hasn't finalized its policy mandating its employees in healthcare, schools and jails to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but unions and human rights commissions are prepared to take questions and give guidance to workers and employers wondering about their rights. 

"If they have any specific questions, we welcome it, whether it's from an individual who's worried [if] their rights are being protected or an employer who's looking to make sure that the folks in their business are well protected," said Charles Dent, chair of the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission.

The territorial government announced Monday that its employees who work with vulnerable people, and those who travel to remote communities on duty travel, must be fully immunized by Nov. 30. That means they'll have to start getting their shots at the latest in October.

The N.W.T. government has one exception for workers to forgo vaccination — a medical exemption that employers must accommodate under the Human Rights Act. 

"The act ultimately prohibits unreasonable discrimination, which means that discrimination may be legitimate and necessary in certain situations," said Dent.

"This really comes down to whether or not it's considered necessary and legitimate."

Dent said having a "personal belief" about the vaccine is not grounds for a complaint under the act. 

"I think it's also important to remember that a person who chooses not to get vaccinated because of a personal choice or belief is not protected under the Human Rights Act, and therefore they would not have the right to be accommodated," said Dent.

The commission is available to both employees and employers who need clarity on their rights, and whether they can form the basis of a complaint.

The commission deals with matters of equality, and N.W.T. residents who are thinking of opposing the policy on the basis of a Charter right would have to contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

"If somebody is saying they want to challenge the validity of the vaccine mandate or a passport or the rights that are infringed under the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms], our commission doesn't deal with certain issues," said Dent.

"Our act only covers equality."

Dent added that any vaccination policy should be evidence-based and in proportion to the health and safety risks the policy works to address.

Important layer of protection

Matthew Miller, the president of the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association, which represents about 860 educators, said staff who oppose vaccination are likely to be in the minority, but the union is prepared to work with employees to uphold their rights.

The two vaccines available in the N.W.T. are an important layer of protection in school settings, Miller said.

"Especially [for] our teachers working with students under the age of 12 who can't be currently vaccinated ... this adds a layer of protection not only to our members but to those students right now," he said.

Matthew Miller, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association, said the majority of union members are vaccinated, but that it's possible a minority of educators will object to the vaccine mandate. (Submitted by Angela Gzowski)

Schools have been shifting from in-person to online learning and "nobody wants to be going back and forth between online learning and in class," said Miller.

Some teachers are also parents, which has put extra pressure on the community and the teaching workforce, said Miller. 

"Hopefully, if something like this goes in, that provides a little more stability," he said. 

"We, of course, want all our teachers going back to a healthy environment, but one that respects their labour rights and their human rights."

Employees looking for the latest information on where to arrange vaccination can find contact information on the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority website.