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Matt Gurney: The federal vaccine mandate is a big stick, but who's it really hitting?

It will likely prove of more use for beating Conservatives over the head than getting reluctant Canadians in line for a jab

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The federal public service vaccine mandate announced this week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounds impressive. “Announced” isn’t the right word, actually — more like “explained.” The government’s plan to bring down such a mandate was originally announced just 36 hours or so before the past election formally began; this week’s announcement was simply providing the specifics of what it would look like. And the specifics are pretty strong stuff.

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There’s the stuff about proof of vaccination being required to board a plane, train or cruise ship — which is interesting, and probably helpful. But it’s the stuff about the federal workforce that’s more interesting. Almost 270,000 federal public servants and contractors, and the RCMP’s workforce, have until the end of the month to either be vaccinated or have applied for an exemption. Two weeks after that, unless they’ve been vaccinated or can show an exemption, they’ll be put on unpaid leave, or in the case of contractors, denied access to federal facilities. As far as “sticks” go — you know, for “carrots and sticks” — that’s a rather heavy one. People tend to take their livelihoods pretty seriously, after all.

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But it’ll be well behind the other sticks that are already in play.

As far as 'sticks' go, it's a rather heavy one

I’ve ridden out the pandemic in my home province of Ontario, and while I obviously keep an eye on stories of national concern, my immediate focus (both as a journalist and simply as a guy living through this along with everyone else) has been on my own backyard, so to speak. And Ontario, though it was appallingly late coming around to embrace the need for some kind of vaccine certificate, has cobbled something together that is already in effect. As of Sept. 22, proof of vaccination has been required to access some businesses and services, such as indoor dining, indoor gyms, indoor recreational facilities, and so on. I’ve had to show my proof of vaccination several times already. Ontario, I knew, was behind Quebec’s rollout, and Quebec, having done a much better job planning for this than Doug Ford’s government managed, has a proper app-based QR code system operating. (Ontario will apparently eventually get something similar, but remember: we screwed up licence plates.) Between people living in Ontario and Quebec, your intrepid columnist figured, that had to basically cover off most of the federal public service, right?

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Right. StatCan tracks this, and while StatCan may define a federal public servant differently than how the federal vaccine mandate regulations might, the big picture is clear: about 40 per cent of the federal public service resides in the capital region (divided between Ontario and Quebec). When you add in those federal public servants outside of the capital but still in Ontario and Quebec, you get to basically two-thirds of the total federal public service.

So Trudeau’s big announcement was to add an additional mandate atop the ones that two-thirds of the people in question were already living with, and will have been for two months or so (or more) by the time the federal version kicks in.

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It’s even more interesting than that. Once I lifted my eyes from my centre-of-the-universe gravitational well and did some research, I found that it’s not just Ontario and Quebec that have vaccination mandates of some kind or another, but, uh, basically everyone. Every province has or will imminently have some form of proof of vaccination requirement for certain business and services (indoor dining being the easy example). The Yukon territorial government does as well; only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut don’t have some local version, saying instead they’ll rely on federal guidance and versions, once available.

StatCan says there’s fewer than a thousand federal public servants resident in Nunavut and the NWT, and only about 1,500 living abroad on various foreign assignments. In effect, the entire federal public service is already working under a vaccine mandate, or will be for many weeks before the federal one goes into effect.

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Make no mistake, the federal mandate for its own workforce is stronger than what the provinces have imposed. It’s entirely likely that there are people working for the federal government who are willing to avoid indoor gyms or dining but who’ll balk at the notion of being put on unpaid leave. Some of these people will get jabbed and that will help bring this pandemic closer to a conclusion, God willing. But we have got to be into the realm of rapidly diminishing returns here. The federal mandate is another layer, though an immediately strong one, on top of something that will already exist virtually across the country by the time it takes effect.

That’s OK. Vaccination is our way out of this, and while some share of the population is resolutely anti-vaccination, there are many other Canadians who are willing but hesitant. They must be appealed to with a full-spectrum approach and the federal mandate is a part of that.

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But we should keep in mind that this is as much a political signal as it is a policy — and a late-arriving signal at that. The Liberals announced their intentions just a day and a half before the past election began, for undoubtedly entirely political reasons. It gave them a splashy open and a wedge to use against the Conservatives. The decision to hold on, though, also means their own mandate, strong as it is, will come into effect only after provincial versions are in place for virtually the entire federal workforce. If this is indeed a “stick,” it will likely prove of more use for beating Conservatives over the head than getting reluctant Canadians in line for a jab. One wonders if any Liberal will mind.

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