OTTAWA—It took three cabinet ministers and a late-day news conference on the eve of an expected election to announce that maybe by early fall Canada will introduce its version of an international vaccine passport to allow Canadians to prove their vaccination status when they travel abroad.
Marco Mendicino, Dominic LeBlanc and Omar Alghabra, the ministers of immigration, intergovernmental affairs and transport, took to Zoom to repeat much the same thing that they told reporters in mid-June: they’re working on it.
At this point there are few details.
Mendicino told the Star in an interview later what’s in the works: provincially-issued vaccination documents would be made accessible to the federal government in a “safe” (meaning privacy-protected) way. That will allow Ottawa to issue a QR code (basically, a machine-readable matrix code like those ones you see when you touchlessly check out a restaurant menu these days) and display the federal certification that a traveller going abroad from Canada is vaccinated.
Available to Canadian citizens, permanent residents or temporary residents of Canada, the Canadian-government approved “proof of vaccination credential” is expected to indicate the individual’s vaccination history: the type of vaccine, along with when and where it was received.
Except that the ministers could offer no assurance that any foreign country would necessarily accept it; no assurance that any country would necessarily allow entry to Canadians who may have mixed vaccine doses (say Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) or received vaccines like AstraZeneca that — despite being approved in Canada — may not be recognized elsewhere; and no assurance that it would be a vaccine credential that could ease Canadians’ ability to attend domestic concerts, sporting venues, restaurants, gyms or other areas where the public gathers.
That, the ministers said, is entirely up to provinces to decide or regulate as they see fit. Provinces have responsibility for on-the-ground decisions about how to safely open up sectors of their economy.
Of course, if provinces want to use the federally-produced certification document — which will be available both in digital and other formats (presumably good old-fashioned paper), the ministers said they would be welcome to embrace it.
LeBlanc defended the slow pace of rolling out Canada’s version of a vaccine certification, calling it a “complex undertaking.”
He said all provinces and territories — even those that don’t plan to require vaccine certification within their borders domestically — agree that an international travel card or digital QR code or a common design for proof of vaccination is a good idea to offer to Canadians who hope to hop on planes or cruise ships in the months and years ahead.
Quebec has said that starting next month it will require vaccination certification to gain access to certain non-essential activities like gyms, sporting and concert venues or restaurants.
LeBlanc said he didn’t know of any province reluctant about the issuance of a vaccination certification document for international travel.
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However, Mendicino said while all provinces agree in principle, many details are still not finalized.
He nonetheless insisted that the fact that British Columbia and Quebec, two of the three most populous provinces (minus Ontario) and all territories are on board “to be ready to go” in the early fall is a “significant milestone.”
“We hope to have more,” he said, calling it “landmark progress.”
Provinces which have responsibility for health care will remain primary holders of the medical data of their citizens, he said. Beyond that, the minister could not outline what other safeguards would be in place, but insisted that integrity of that data is a priority for those designing the system.
The issue has been studied for months.
Canada is one of dozens of countries at the table at ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has drafted technical standards for countries to follow in devising their vaccine passports.
Mendicino said that will ensure that Canada’s design will be in line with international standards for most countries where Canadians are likely to want to travel.
The topic of international proof of vaccination including the EU Digital COVID Certificate arose during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wide-ranging conversation Wednesday with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Trudeau has publicly said his government is looking at making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for federal employees and for workers in federally-regulated sectors like air and rail transportation, telecommunications and banking.
LeBlanc suggested that Ottawa’s move towards providing a vaccine passport will also be an incentive to more Canadians to get fully vaccinated.
At least 81 per cent of eligible Canadians aged 12 and older have had one vaccination dose, and more than 68 per cent are fully vaccinated, according to Health Canada.
Correction (Aug. 11, 2021): An earlier version of this story misspelled the surnames of Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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