Vaccine passports are an unnecessary infringement on civil liberties

Vaccine passports are an unnecessary infringement on civil liberties

As Canada begins to reopen, calls for domestic vaccine passports have been growing louder. Yet they are not a necessary, or justifiable, part of Canada’s reopening plan, as they create significant concerns around privacy and civil liberties. Vaccine passports should be resisted.

Manitoba has already started a vaccine passport program. Under a new public health order, fully vaccinated Manitobans will be able to visit museums, casinos, movie theatres and other public venues that have been closed since the fall. Restaurants may now sit patrons from different households together at the same table, but only if they are fully vaccinated.

To help make enforcement of these policies easier, Manitobans can apply for an “immunization card.” But Manitoba immunization cards are only available for people with Manitoba health cards. They aren’t available for visitors or for individuals who may not otherwise be eligible for a health card, including international students.

This new order is in addition to the vaccination exemptions for travellers. Most travellers coming into Manitoba from another part of Canada are required to self-isolate for 14 days. And although Premier Brian Pallister has stated that vaccinated visitors are not required to quarantine, the process for proving eligibility for this exemption is opaque.

The government’s website states that individuals who do not have a Manitoba health card can contact their local public health department to get a copy of their immunization record, but there is no indication that this provides the same benefits as a Manitoba immunization card. The vagueness of this policy almost seems intentionally designed to keep outsiders away.

What is also concerning is that the existing vaccine passport systems (Prince Edward Island has a system for travellers, as well) do not clearly include exemptions for individuals who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.

The case for medical exemptions is compelling, yet neither province appears to have made this accommodation. As a result, the vaccine passports in Canada, as they currently exist, are discriminatory and likely violate Canadians’ Charter right not to be discriminated against on the basis of a disability.

Not only do these policies have the potential to violate rights and create bureaucratic nightmares, vaccine passports are frankly excessive. Canada has high vaccine uptake: over 78 per cent of eligible Canadians have received one dose of a COVID vaccine, and over 50 per cent are now fully vaccinated.

This is a huge accomplishment. Although Canada’s early access to vaccines was slow compared to our allies in the developed world, Canadians have now surpassed our American neighbours in terms of the percentage of people who have been vaccinated.

Yet, in spite of this success, calls for domestic passports are increasing rather than decreasing. This is a problem because domestic vaccine passports infringe upon our Charter rights, in particular the right to mobility.

As the requirement to show proof of vaccination spreads to cover more and more aspects of everyday life, as has begun in Manitoba and has been contemplated in Quebec, vaccination becomes mandatory in practice, if not in name. While Charter rights can be limited, they must only be limited in a way that is minimally impairing and proportionate.

With incredibly high vaccination rates across Canada, it’s difficult to see a justification for limiting travel between provinces or access to public spaces. The idea of vaccine passports seems less about stopping the spread of the virus, and more about imposing the will of the majority on the remaining portion of the population, who for whatever reasons remain unvaccinated.

These policies also flip our notion of liberal democracy on its head. Canada is a permissive country. We do not show papers to travel, and we do not apply for permission to engage in civil society. Expanding the scope of government authority over our lives in the name of public health, when we are fortunate enough to have extremely high rates of vaccination, is wholly unnecessary.

Moreover, dividing the country with domestic vaccine passports encourages an unhealthy form of jingoism. Canada is one country, with high vaccination rates from coast to coast. We should celebrate the accomplishments we have made as a country in overcoming this brutal pandemic, rather than seeing our provincial neighbours as threats to be protected against.

This article was originally published in the National Post.