'The tide is really turning' on support for COVID-19 vaccine passports, expert says

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rejected immunization certificates and mandating immunizations for workplaces, but one legal expert who’s argued in favour of so-called vaccine passports believes they’re inevitable.

Ontario will eventually follow Quebec’s lead, Bryan Thomas predicts

People in Quebec can already choose to receive a QR code as proof of vaccination, though the province doesn't yet require one to access non-essential services. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rejected adding vaccination certificates and mandating immunizations in workplaces, but one legal expert who's argued in favour of so-called vaccine passports believes they're inevitable.

"I think the tide is really turning," with more people supporting the idea, said Bryan Thomas, a research associate with the Centre for Law, Policy and Health Ethics at the University of Ottawa. 

If the government doesn't create some form of proof of vaccination, he expects those in the private sector will "and it'll just be a wild west with untold problems."

He said if businesses such as gyms and restaurants have to seek out their own version of a vaccine certificate, privacy couldn't be guaranteed, with companies possibly turning to private apps to show proof of immunization.

'A slam dunk'

Thomas calls mandating employee vaccinations "a slam dunk" legally for long-term care homes and hospitals and "a pretty strong case" when it comes to post-secondary institutions and schools, saying the government can impose conditions on workplaces.

This week, Quebec confirmed it will require proof of immunization if people want to get access to some non-essential services, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Canada's top civil servant to look into mandating vaccinations for federal employees and federally regulated companies. Plus, all Ontario's opposition parties now back requiring some workers to be vaccinated. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford opposes mandatory vaccinations at some workplaces, saying 'no one should be forced to do anything.' He also rejects requiring a proof of vaccination certificate to enter some businesses. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Last month, Ford called it a "hard no" that he'd change his mind and support bringing in mandatory vaccinations, calling it the "constitutional right" for Ontarians to choose whether to be immunized, while at the same time he encouraged people to get the vaccine.

It was the same message Friday from Solicitor General Sylvia Jones. She rejected the idea of the province requiring vaccinations at some workplaces, pointing to high vaccination rates already, including among long-term care employees.

"We do not believe that we have to impose on Ontario citizens when, frankly, they're doing the right thing right now."

Jones also rejected the idea of an Ontario vaccine certificate, despite one being already in place in Manitoba, and Quebec set to roll out its version.

"We don't want 13 different vaccine passports or certificates across Canada," she told reporters.

Not supporting mandatory workplace vaccinations backfired on another provincial politician this week.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath faced an immediate backlash after she initially said she did not support mandatory vaccinations for education staff on CBC's Power and Politics on Wednesday. 

"I don't take lightly people's charter rights, and so that's why what we're saying is rapid tests or your vaccination status and being vaccinated," she said.

Some of the harshest criticism came from her own party, with federal NDP MP Charlie Angus tweeting that he'd pushed Horwath to walk back the comments "because the libs will drive a truck over our party for such idiocy." The tweet was later deleted.

Former NDP MPP Cheri Di Novo also tweeted her frustration, writing "Speak up NDP MPPs. Save yourselves"

Thursday afternoon, Horwath issued a mea culpa, saying "I made a mistake suggesting a mandatory vaccine policy during a global pandemic should take a back seat to charter rights. I regret the comment. I was wrong."

That was after Liberal leader Steven Del Duca accused her of teaming up with Doug Ford "to try to appease that anti-vaxxer element." 

Del Duca said he supports mandatory vaccinations for education workers and eligible students, though at the same time he added he wouldn't make the policy punitive, resulting in people losing their jobs.

"You need to respect the charter in its totality," he said during a news conference Thursday morning in contrast to Horwath's first statement. "We have our rights, but we have an obligation to each other."

Green Party leader Mike Schreiner then released a statement on mandatory vaccinations, saying his party supports them for health-care and education workers.

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says if COVID-19 vaccinations are required in any workplaces, exceptions will need to be allowed. (Sven Frenzel)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) notes immunization against other diseases isn't 100 per cent mandatory for students, as a number of exemptions are accepted for other vaccines, though schools then keep a list of who's unvaccinated in case of outbreak.

The organization raises privacy concerns about workplaces demanding to know employees' vaccination status.

However, in places such as long-term care homes and hospitals, working with vulnerable people, "it's probably going to be easier to justify that than in an office" with physical distancing, said Cara Zwibel, director of the CCLA's Fundamental Freedoms Program.

The CCLA has come out against vaccine passports, though Zwibel calls them "much less concerning" if they're applied to non-essential businesses, as Quebec promises.  

"If you can go to the grocery store, you can go to the hospital, you can go to the pharmacy," it's harder to make an argument that someone's rights are being violated, Zwibel said.

Zwibel sees a shift in how proof of vaccination is being discussed, saying she believes most people agree unvaccinated people shouldn't be excluded from accessing essential services.

But Thomas argues there's no reason for governments to hold off and not add a vaccine certificate. 

"[It] doesn't actually hold anyone down and force them to get vaccinated," he said. 

While vaccine passports don't force people, they do entice them and can raise vaccination rates, as seen in parts of Europe and now in Quebec. Vaccine bookings shot up after Premier François Legault's announcement.

Thomas says if the projected fourth wave in cases does come in the fall, with vaccine certificates required next door in Quebec, "the pressure on the Ford government will just be overwhelming to get its act together."


Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda Reddekopp is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. She's originally from Saskatchewan. She speaks Spanish and previously lived and reported in Latin America.