Finally, it’s here: the great Canadian election debate over vaccination passports. Well, maybe it’s the beginning of one.
Just short of two weeks into the campaign, divisions have emerged between three main parties on the question of what kind of vaccination proof is going to get Canadians past the pandemic. At this stage, the choice appears to boil down to this: one passport for the nation, many different versions or none at all.
Justin Trudeau is in the “many” camp. The Liberals have now rolled out a proposed “proof of vaccination fund” for provinces to come up with their own systems of immunization ID. It’s not the pan-Canadian vaccination card that could be a political asset to Trudeau at this point in the election, but it is in keeping with his standard approach to COVID-19 relief: Ottawa pays, the provinces play.
It was left to New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh to champion one national vaccine passport. “I think the federal government should just do it,” Singh told reporters on Friday. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just have one central document that we get from the federal government and we can use in any province we travel to?” The practical details of this plan were not immediately revealed by Singh.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, however, had even less to say about vaccination passports altogether. “If the provinces make decisions on proof of vaccinations, vaccine passports, we will support and respect what the provinces decide to do,” O’Toole said. That is not a position on vaccine passports. It is more of an evasion for now.
So here’s another way to draw some lines around the three leaders’ opening positions on vaccination passports: NDP, easy to say; Liberals, hard to do; Conservatives, hard to say.
The Canadian public is having an increasingly important conversation about whether vaccination passports would be practical — and it’s a conversation that should be finding its way into a serious federal election debate. In fact, the public and businesses may be out ahead of the politicians on this one, as people wrestle with how to navigate their way between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. For months, polls have been showing increasing approval for vaccination passports, which is creating a demand for some kind of proof of vaccination in all walks of life.
In Ottawa, where I live, the idea of provinces going their own ways in issuing vaccination proof is a messy prospect, given how many people cross back and forth between Quebec and Ontario every day. Perhaps that’s one reason why Doug Ford held out for so long against some kind of certificates for Ontarians.
Trudeau clearly relishes the prospect of painting Conservatives — whether it’s Ford or O’Toole — as passport-hesitant, which he equates with vaccine hesitancy and resistance to science in general. The Liberal leader has been shadowed on the road by an obnoxious group of anti-vaxxers who shout racist remarks, and Trudeau doesn’t mind being seen on the opposite side of that particularly toxic bundle of intolerance.
The problem with the vaccination-proof fund is that it’s absolutely invisible to average voters. As I and others have argued, .
Retired general Rick Hillier, formerly head of Ford’s vaccine task force, complained Friday on CBC Radio that Trudeau’s government was “too bureaucratic.” He was talking about the Canadian efforts in crumbling Afghanistan, but the criticism touches more largely on why the Liberals are having trouble making themselves heard in this election. A vaccination-passport fund. Too bureaucratic, maybe?
After six years in government, Liberals know that they can’t just go out on the road and blue-sky about a national vaccination passport, as Singh did on Friday. Nor can Trudeau just say the provinces can go their own way, without any details on Ottawa’s role in the passport debate, as O’Toole has.
But “it’s complicated” doesn’t make for a lively or creative discussion about what the post-pandemic future looks like — which is supposed to be the point of this election.
Vaccinations are part of that immediate future and perhaps this emerging discussion on passports — one, many or none at all — may give Canadians some clue about why we’re in a campaign now. A debate over mandatory vaccinations might have done that too, but it too got bogged down in complications and non-answers all around in the opening days of the campaign.
The first leaders’ TV debate is less than a week away. The unfolding discussion about vaccination passports might be a hint for where the debate could get interesting.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt