Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday January 21, 2022
Trudeau must keep this vaccine pledge
It’s time to jog Justin Trudeau’s memory about a major election promise he seems to have stuffed into a desk drawer and forgotten. Last Sept. 1, at the height of the federal election campaign and while the pandemic was high on every voter’s mind, the prime minister vowed to pass a law that would protect employers from being sued if they fired unvaccinated employees. That commitment, which figured prominently in the Liberal platform Trudeau unveiled the same day, signalled to voters that unlike the Conservatives, the Liberals meant business when it comes to getting as many people vaccinated against COVID-19 as possible.
Whether or not it helped the Liberals at the ballot box, they did win the election. But nearly five months after Trudeau made that promise, he has still not kept it. The government can identify no concrete action it has taken to make good on the pledge. In fact, Trudeau’s mandate letters to his new cabinet last fall made no mention of any such new legislation.
In the meantime, and in marked contrast to Ottawa’s inertia, something has happened. Businesses and organizations across Canada are being snowed under by an avalanche of lawsuits involving terminations resulting from an individual’s vaccine status. There are no firm numbers for how many suits have been launched. But Toronto employment lawyer Lior Samfiru says his firm alone is representing “hundreds of people across Canada on this issue” and that “in my 20 years of practising law, I have not seen so many cases dealing with the same issue over such a short period of time.”
If the Liberal government is blind to what’s happening, employers are not. They feel besieged by former employees they terminated for valid health and safety reasons. To make things worse, they feel ignored by Ottawa. “Employers have no safety net whatsoever,” says Dan Kelly, chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “If they do fire an unvaccinated worker, they could be facing not only a massive legal cost but a big payout to any workers. And governments have not lifted a finger to try to make sure that employers are protected.”
The Liberals’ failure to act on this matter is wrong on so many levels. It’s not just that an unkept promise has become an unpaid debt. In many, many cases employers need to be able to make full vaccination against COVID-19 a condition of employment. Such a condition could obviously have negative consequences for vaccination holdouts who lack a legitimate health or religious reason to be exempted. But a vaccination mandate helps protect a workplace, the people employed there as well as any outsiders, such as customers, who venture in. It can also slow the spread of COVID-19 and play a part in finally bringing this awful pandemic under control.
While the federal and provincial governments have successfully made vaccinations against COVID-19 a condition of employment in some workplaces that they regulate, it’s a different story for employers who aren’t subject to a government vaccine mandate. As soon as possible, Trudeau needs to remedy this situation and protect conscientious employers trying to run safe workplaces.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy. Employment laws for non-federally-regulated workers generally fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces, not Ottawa. Because of this, if the federal government wants to protect businesses that terminate non-federally-regulated workers, it would have to use its emergency powers to override provincial jurisdiction or amend criminal law. It would be difficult to successfully proceed with either option. That said, perhaps the government can enlist provincial support and come through with the protection it promised.
Whatever obstacles the Liberals face, they should keep in mind this was their idea. And the longer they do nothing, the tougher it will get for them and employers nationwide. The number of lawsuits involving terminated unvaccinated workers has been building since last fall. Even if the government delivers the necessary legislation in the coming months, it will almost certainly be unable to stop the litigation already underway or spare some employers from expensive payouts. But if they feel intimidated by such challenges, the Liberals should remember what they promised — and that voters will remember it, too. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)