OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives’ refusal to disclose how many of their elected members are fully vaccinated makes them something of an outlier in the Canadian political sphere.
Most federal and provincial parties are open about the immunization status of their members, even though not all legislatures have adopted a rule requiring that members be fully vaccinated.
All government and main opposition members in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador say they are fully vaccinated.
In Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford made vaccination a requirement to sit in his Progressive Conservative caucus, two of his MPPs say they are medically exempt. All opposition MPPs are fully vaccinated.
A spokeswoman for New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says all members of the governing Progressive Conservative caucus are fully vaccinated, except for one who is undergoing cancer treatment and had to delay their second shot until later this month.
All but two MLAs in Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government say they’re fully immunized. The two refuse to reveal their vaccination status.
Mandatory vaccination rules have also been announced for admittance to Nova Scotia’s Province House and Quebec’s National Assembly.
A similar policy was unveiled federally this week by the board of internal economy, the multi-party governing body of the House of Commons. It announced a double vaccination requirement for entering buildings in the Commons precinct, including the House of Commons chamber itself.
Nothing has yet been decided for the Senate, which sets its own rules.
The move appears to leave Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole in a predicament: He didn’t make vaccination against COVID-19 a rule to run as a Conservative candidate in the recent federal election and he won’t say now how many of his 118 MPs are fully vaccinated. At the same time, he wants to return to an in-person Parliament when it resumes Nov. 22.
O’Toole, who contracted COVID-19 and personally promotes the value of vaccinations, says he respects an individual’s personal health choices.
The most recent analysis by The Canadian Press found at least 80 Conservative MPs are fully vaccinated, while two said they couldn’t be immunized for medical reasons. Two others refused to disclose their status on principle and the others did not respond.
Some in O’Toole’s caucus champion the need to keep their vaccination status private, like backbench Saskatchewan MP Jeremy Patzer. He wrote a recent op-ed saying he rejects “bully tactics” to cajole people into divulging private medical information, but then later confirmed he is himself vaccinated.
Similarly, Alberta MP Glen Motz posted on his website: “As strongly as I support the use of vaccines in our fight against COVID-19, I am as equally opposed to coerced vaccination.”
Just as the Liberals drove mandatory vaccinations as a wedge during the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continued criticizing the Conservatives. He suggested this week that his decision to wait another month to recall Parliament was to ensure all of O’Toole’s team had time to get vaccinated.
Conservative spokesman Mathew Clancy said the official Opposition doesn’t believe the nine-member board of internal economy “has the jurisdiction to infringe on a member’s right to take their seat in the House of Commons,” but didn’t elaborate on whether it would challenge the decision.
Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé, an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system, said the rules weren’t designed to deal with public health, but it’s up to MPs to lay down their own laws in their parliamentary house.
“The fundamental principle remains the same — this is a collective right and if as a collectivity the House determines that its safety and ability to perform its function needs to be protected against some external force — a disease, or a police officer, or a court — well, then that’s the way it is,” he said.
“The reality is we’re not a pure democracy, we’re a parliamentary democracy.”
He said the issue some Conservative MPs may raise is whether the board of internal economy can speak for the entire House of Commons.
However, if they compel the Commons to vote on the issue, it’s clear the mandatory vaccination policy would easily pass, with the support of Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and NDP members.
Federal parties must also decide whether the Commons should resume all normal in-person proceedings or continue with a virtual component, allowing MPs to participate by videoconference.
At B.C.’s legislature, there is a hybrid option for the assembly itself and a rule that all MLAs, staff and guests must show proof of vaccination to gain admittance to the building.
In Saskatchewan and Ontario, visitors must be double vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test result before entry.
In Manitoba, many continue to participate remotely. Speaker Myrna Driedger said in an email that the legislature hasn’t yet dealt with the issue of vaccination requirements for its chambers.
In Alberta, Speaker Nathan Cooper said decisions around whether to exclude an MLA from the assembly must be made by the assembly alone.
“This has been a very complicated and fascinating time to see our democracies wrestle with this very foundational building block of our society in terms of our democracy, and the very real and active concerns around public health,” he said.
The Alberta NDP, which says all of its MLAs are fully vaccinated, has pushed United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney to ensure the same of his caucus. Cooper said it’s been “widely reported” all UCP members are vaccinated, except for one seeking a medical exemption.
Kenney has said he favours making sure all MLAs are either vaccinated, or show a negative result from a COVID-19 test to enter the assembly, which begins sitting Monday.
Lagassé said when it comes to introducing any new set of rules for Parliament, an important question is how long they will last, particularly when it impacts the abilities of the public and parliamentarians to access these spaces.
“We’ve got to be careful with it, but you almost have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.