Federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate: Here's what we know, what we don't

WATCH ABOVE: The federal government says all federal public servants will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination by the end of October, or risk being put on leave without pay.

Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required by no later than the end of October for all employees in Canada’s federally regulated workplaces. And, by mid-November, enforcement measures in place will make sure the requirement is implemented.

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The official announcement came from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday and included mandatory vaccination for travel within Canada. Since making the promise to do so back in August, Treasury Board officials have been sketching out specifics of the plan with unions, including holding discussions on consequences for workers who refuse vaccination.

Here’s a look at what we know about the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate so far.

Starting Oct. 30, the new policy requires vaccinations for anyone 12 years or older wishing to board a plane or a train in Canada, barring narrow medical exceptions.

This is not specific to federal employees — it includes all passengers flying on domestic, transborder or international flights departing from airports in Canada, and rail passengers on VIA Rail and Rocky Mountaineer trains. Marine passengers on non-essential passenger vessels, like cruise ships or voyages extending 24 hours or more, must also be vaccinated.

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“Testing will no longer be an option before boarding,” Trudeau clarified at a news conference.

“For the vast, vast majority of people, the rules are very simple,” he continued. “To travel, you’ve got to be vaccinated.”

“These travel measures, along with mandatory vaccination for federal employees, are some of the strongest in the world. Because when it comes to keeping you and your family safe, when it comes to avoiding lockdowns for everyone, this is no time for half measures,” he added.

This means that anyone wishing to board a plane or train must have received a second jab of a Health Canada-approved vaccine at least 14 days before their travels.

Currently, Health Canada has four approved vaccines against COVID-19: AstraZeneca Vaxzevria, Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and Moderna Spikevax.

For travellers who are in the process of being vaccinated, there will be a short window within which they can travel provided they offer a valid COVID-19 molecular test within 72 hours of travel.

However, by Nov. 30, that window, too, will close and all travellers will require full vaccination before hopping aboard. Limited exceptions will be available to address specific situations like emergency travel and will be extended to those medically unable to be vaccinated.

For those in core public service — including air travel and rail employees — full vaccination against COVID-19 is mandatory by Oct. 29. They must attest that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, failing which, they will be put on unpaid administrative leave.

“The attestation for the public service is the first step with severe consequences for anyone who is found to have been misrepresenting themselves,” Trudeau said while speaking to reporters Wednesday.

“And, we’re putting in place significant processes to ensure that those attestations are, in fact, real.”

However, it seems unclear at the moment how the government is going to determine whose attestation is true or false.

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The new mandate affects more than 267,000 core public-service and RCMP workers and includes even those who work from home and outside of Canada. They will be required to provide an attestation of their COVID-19 vaccine status online, which will be tracked and audited by departments. Respective department managers can ask for proof of vaccination at any time.

Starting Nov. 15, disciplinary actions, including firings, will be considered against employees who provide false attestations. However, people who have had only one dose will be given 10 weeks to get their second jab before they are put on unpaid administrative leave.

They will not be allowed back at work until they are either fully vaccinated or the policy is no longer in effect.

Those who falsify information or otherwise fail to comply with the new federal vaccine policy are likely to face fines. Transport Canada will monitor compliance by means of inspections and enforcement tools.

Railway companies can face fines up to $250,000 per violation, per day, under the Railway Safety Act.

In the air sector, travellers or employees can be fined up to $5,000 per violation under the Aeronautics Act, while operators can be looking at $25,000 in fines per violation.

In the marine sector, non-compliant employees and travellers can face fines up to $250,000 per violation, per day. For operators, the fines can go up to $250,000 per violation, per day, according to the interim order in the Canada Shipping Act, 2001.

The government is working with employers of airport businesses, airline and rail companies to develop their own mandatory vaccine policies by the end of the month.

There will be “very limited exceptions” to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for travellers to address “the realities of remote, fly-in communities; emergency travel; and exceptional medical reasons,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement released Wednesday.

While accommodations will be made for people who can’t get a vaccine on grounds protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which includes religious and health reasons, Trudeau promised that the exemptions will be difficult to obtain, and having a personal belief that vaccines are “bad” will not work.

In an email to Global News Thursday, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board said that when it comes to exemption on grounds of religion, department managers are required to “request an affidavit sworn by the employee before a commissioner for taking affidavits.”

The affidavit should contain “detailed information about the sincerely held religious belief that prohibits full vaccination,” the spokesperson wrote. “Swearing a false affidavit would constitute a breach of the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector and may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Managers can also ask for additional information and supporting documentation, as they deem fit.

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The prime minister has maintained that the “intent of these measures is to ensure that anyone working for the federal public service, that anyone wishing to travel on a plane or a train be vaccinated and exemptions — whether they’re medical exemptions or otherwise — will be exceedingly narrow, specific and, to be honest, somewhat onerous to obtain.

“We will, of course, work with, as we are with Health Canada, on defining those medical exemptions on other partners, on other exemptions. But let me say that simply having a personal conviction that vaccines are bad will not be nearly enough to qualify for an exemption to that.”

–with files from Aaron D’Andrea and The Canadian Press 

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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