Politics

Military eases vaccine mandate, presses ahead with discipline for unvaccinated troops

The Canadian Armed Forces plans to press ahead with the forced expulsion of dozens of unvaccinated troops despite a new order from defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre on Friday ending the military's blanket COVID-19 vaccine requirement

Dozens of unvaccinated troops will be expelled from military, top soldier says

Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, speaks during a military announcement in Trenton, Ont., in June. Eyre said in an interview with The Canadian Press that a refusal by some troops to get their shots 'raises questions about your suitability to serve in uniform.' (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Armed Forces plans to press ahead with the forced expulsion of dozens of unvaccinated troops despite a new order from defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre on Friday ending the military's blanket COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Eyre said that is because service members are expected to follow legal orders — and that a refusal by some troops to get their shots "raises questions about your suitability to serve in uniform."

"It's dangerous in the military to have legal orders disobeyed," he said. "It's a very slippery slope."

The comments came as Eyre released a highly anticipated new vaccine policy that effectively suspends his previous requirement for all Armed Forces members to be fully vaccinated or face disciplinary action.

Vaccines will no longer be required for all those serving in uniform, including as a prerequisite for joining the military, but will instead be based on the roles and responsibilities of individual service members.

The defence chief's new order includes a list of those who will still need two doses of a Health Canada-approved vaccine, with an emphasis on quick-response units such as special forces and the disaster assistance response team.

There are also requirements based on deployments alongside specific allies or organizations, including those working with NATO or the United Nations, as well as all sailors on warships operating overseas.

"We've got to remember that a ship out in the middle of the ocean doesn't have access to intensive medical care," Eyre said, adding that some allies such as the United States and Japan require military members to have vaccines.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march at a parade in Calgary on July 8, 2016. Under the CAF's new policy, vaccines will no longer be required for all those serving in uniform, including as a prerequisite for joining the military, but will instead be based on the roles and responsibilities of individual service members. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Describing his order as an "interim policy," Eyre said he has ordered a review of the military's overall approach to vaccinations. At the same time, he reserved the right to implement it again should the pandemic take another turn.

"The medical advice is continuing to evolve," he said. "What is the bare minimum that's required to protect the force, to protect operational output, while at the same time respecting the individual decisions that members want to make."

The new policy follows months of pressure and questions about the military's vaccine mandate as a condition of employment, particularly after most other federal mandates were suspended.

The end of a vaccination requirement for international travellers prompted Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre last month to call for an end to what he described as the military's "discriminatory and unscientific vaccine mandate."

Hundreds of unvaccinated soldiers already out of military

While the vast majority of service members bared their arms for shots, with 96 per cent having attested to being fully vaccinated, briefing notes prepared for Defence Minister Anita Anand in June revealed that more than 1,100 had not.

The Defence Department says about 300 service members have been told to hang up their uniforms, while another 100 have left voluntarily. Disciplinary proceedings, including warnings and marks on personal files, have been doled out to hundreds more.

A number of serving members have unsuccessfully challenged the mandate in court, while some groups and individuals opposed to vaccine mandates, pandemic lockdowns and the Liberal government used the requirement as a rallying point.

The Defence Department first reported that the mandate was being re-examined in June, and a draft copy of a revised vaccine policy obtained by the Ottawa Citizen in July suggested vaccine requirements for military personnel would be lifted.

The draft document, which officials said was not approved by Eyre, noted potential legal difficulties ahead to deal with people who were kicked out of the military because of the vaccine mandate, suggesting they could be forced to apply for re-enrolment.

The defence chief would not commit to any specific eligibility for re-enrolment, saying only that he would consider such requests on a case-by-case basis.

Eyre also defended the fact the military is among the last to drop its blanket requirement, noting it was among the first to take dramatic steps such as suspending non-essential activities at the start of the pandemic to protect the force should it be required in an emergency.

"So it would be the same on the far end as well," he said. "We would hold onto those measures a little bit longer."

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