Not even 24 hours had passed on the federal election trail before it became obvious what the first wedge issue of the race would be: mandatory vaccinations.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau named it as the first issue he believed Canadians deserve to have a say on, standing outside Rideau Hall on Sunday where he pulled the plug on his own minority government, plunging the county into an election that will take place Sept. 20.
Days earlier, his government unveiled a plan to mandate vaccinations for federal employees, workers in federally regulated industries like transportation and banking, as well as many travellers.
That demonstrated a marked shift in the Liberals’ approach to the question of whether people should need to show some proof of vaccination outside of international travel, with Trudeau earlier in the year warning such a policy could be “divisive.”
The topic is now top of mind as the country finds itself in a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with provinces and businesses searching for ways to avoid another lockdown and boost vaccination rates.
Trudeau said Sunday not every political party agrees with his government’s latest move and singled out the Conservatives for comments made by an Alberta MP, calling the idea “tyrannical.”
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The issue is a delicate one for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who speaks for a base focused on personal freedoms.
At first, he avoided directly answering on Sunday what he thinks about the new mandate.
Hours later, he issued a statement clarifying he believes people want a “balanced approach that protects their right to make personal health decisions,” and favours requiring unvaccinated travellers and federal workers to be tested for COVID-19 as an alternative to having to get a shot.
How different that is from the Liberal mandate isn’t immediately clear, given that the federal government is planning to grant exceptions for those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons or other protected grounds.
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh also seized on the mandatory vaccination issue on the first full day of the campaign.
On Monday, the party issued a statement pressing Trudeau to set a deadline of Sept. 6 for when federal public servants and workers in federally regulated industries need to be vaccinated, and to offer paid leave for workers still needing a shot.
“If Justin Trudeau really wants to protect Canadians, he needs to set real deadlines for vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations for federal industries,” said Singh.