During the COVID-19 pandemic vaccine mandates have barred people from spaces like restaurants, sports facilities, cinemas, and public transportation across Canada.
The newest wave of COVID-19 is leading to growing numbers of infections as well as conversations about the morality of mandates. Mandates are a tool that help protect people most vulnerable to COVID-19, but some community leaders agree that they do lead to discrimination against unvaccinated people.
The vast majority of vaccine mandates in Canada have been lifted. The only major post-secondary institution that has not dropped their vaccine mandate is Western University in London, Ont.
Alberta Premiere Danielle Smith has referred to unvaccinated people as the group who have faced the most discrimination in her lifetime. Her lifetime has included Indigenous residential schooling, the AIDS epidemic, and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Advisor Siyobin Blanco works for a private accessibility consulting firm in Guelph and says that unvaccinated people are “most definitely not” facing the worst discrimination. But, she says that there is discrimination happening based on vaccine status.
Blanco is a community organizer in Guelph who is queer, disabled, immunocompromised, and has chronic illnesses. Before getting the first vaccine Blanco was very excited, and had conversations in her home about the importance of everyone getting vaccinated.
Blanco got two COVID-19 vaccinations and says she experienced an array of long lasting side effects after each shot, including disruption of her menstrual cycle, muscle spasms, and worsening pre-existing symptoms. Blanco knows lots of people with chronic illnesses whose symptoms have been exacerbated by COVID-19 vaccines.
“It is tough for me as someone who is immunocompromised,” reflects Blanco, who says she needs the people around her to be vaccinated but does not want to get boosters herself, due to fearing serious side effects.
Erin Caton, councilor elect for Guelph’s ward one, advocates for people with environmental illnesses and founded the Environmental Sensitivities Coalition of Canada. Caton says people in the communities they advocate for have experienced a wide variety of reactions after getting vaccinated for COVID-19, such as autoimmune conditions flaring up and causing incredible sickness and chronic fatigue.
Both Caton and her daughter are at high risk for COVID-19, so “the vaccine is incredibly important to ensure I stay safe and my child stays safe.”
Caton does not have a problem with the mandates themselves but does have a problem with the limits of medical exemptions. Caton says most exemptions are limited to allergies or anaphylactic shock, which does not encompass the range of reactions people experience.
Blanco feels conflicted about vaccine mandates. “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do to protect myself but I don’t really know how to ask other people if I can’t do it myself.”
Blanco wishes that everyone able to get vaccinated safely would do so without a mandate, but notes that “as the pandemic has shown, community care isn’t something everybody can just hop on and take responsibility for.” Blanco would feel more comfortable with vaccine mandates if medical exemptions were more accessible.
Others are not comfortable with vaccine mandates in any capacity. Recent Guelph mayoral candidate Shelagh McFarlane says unvaccinated people have faced “gross discrimination and marginalizing” through mandates.
McFarlane says unvaccinated people have been “forced out of their jobs, locked in their homes, locked out of grocery stores, daycare facilities, gyms, Costco, arenas, LTC facilities, airports, buses, trains, HOSPITALS.” Costco and other grocery stores in Canada did not implement vaccine mandates, and the mandates in hospitals applied to staff, not patients.
Adding Vaccination Status to Human Rights Codes
Premiere Smith is taking steps towards amending Alberta’s human rights code to include unvaccinated people as a group protected from discrimination.
Blanco does not feel unvaccinated people need to be included in human rights codes because unlike being queer or a person of colour, being unvaccinated is a choice.
Caton agrees. “Human rights are for things that you have no choice over.”
Caton says immunocompromised people are currently unable to access public spaces and that this could be alleviated by implementing mask mandates. They acknowledge that some people will still need medical exemptions but “the majority of people can wear masks” which would make it safer for people to access public spaces. Caton does not consider mask mandates discriminatory if medical exemptions are available. Meanwhile, Smith is making moves to legally prevent mask mandates at Alberta schools.
Caton warns that the name calling and mocking happening between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups does not help the situation and instead increases the divide.
“In the core there is some fear there and confusion and misunderstanding about the science and I think that if we can chat people up a little bit in a more generous way then we are going to have a better time trying to convince people to get vaccinated.”