OTTAWA — Courting votes in the GTA, the Liberal and Conservative leaders were forced to clarify their stances Tuesday on two issues that have quickly emerged as urgent and polarizing — the Afghanistan crisis and mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
It is unclear how voters will weight the searing images of desperate Afghans trying to flee their country, or how important the question of vaccinations once Canadians return to schools, workplaces and public spaces will be.
But three days into a federal campaign that has already seen Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh face hecklers on the campaign trail, it’s clear that they are taking no chances.
Trudeau did damage control on Afghanistan first thing Tuesday, vowing he would not recognize a Taliban-led government as legitimate after his Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau equivocated Monday about whether Canada would recognize the Islamist rulers.
Garneau had told the CBC it was “too early” to say and Ottawa was “waiting to see what happens.”
The Conservatives immediately condemned that stance, and Trudeau — appearing at a Markham event that was supposed to highlight the Liberal child-care plan — was forced to backtrack.
“Canada has no plans to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. When they were in government, 20 years ago, Canada did not recognize them as a government,” said Trudeau. “They are a recognized terrorist organization under Canadian law.
“Our focus right now is on getting people out of Afghanistan.”
The Conservatives, NDP and Greens say Canada should not recognize the Taliban, and all parties pressed the Trudeau government for swifter action.
On the defensive, Trudeau insisted his government has worked for months to help people fleeing Afghanistan, and on Friday, two days before the election launch, he announced Canada would accept 20,000 Afghan refugees.
On Tuesday, Trudeau said he is open to taking in many more.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he would not cap the number of Afghan refugees either. “What we need to do is we have the back of anyone who’s at risk because they help Canada, and I don’t care what the number is,” O’Toole said.
“They had our back, I will have theirs.”
The NDP and Greens had similar messages.
But O’Toole also had to once again justify his refusal to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for federal workers, air and rail travellers, and even his own party’s candidates, against a backdrop of more aggressive provincial actions in the face of a fourth wave driven by the Delta variant.
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The Conservative leader claimed that government officials agreed with him that rapid tests are an option for unvaccinated workers, and pointed to a Treasury Board policy statement that disappeared from a government website on Monday night.
O’Toole accused Trudeau of ordering it taken down, calling it a “coverup” and “corruption” and an effort to politicize the issue and divide Canadians over vaccinations.
Trudeau said the policy statement was “erroneous” and was removed by the public service because it didn’t reflect his government’s policy — one that was only announced on Friday. He did not directly answer when asked if any political staff had intervened to request the deletion.
Quebec and Ontario issued new vaccination orders on Tuesday
, as Trudeau warned there would be unspecified “consequences” for unvaccinated federal workers who don’t have a legitimate medical reason to decline vaccines.
Trudeau says the government is working with public sector unions to determine enforcement mechanisms.
Ottawa labour lawyer Paul Champ said it’s a “really controversial topic right now in the labour and employment field.”
Champ said he believes the federal government could require vaccination as a “reasonable condition of employment,” enact a regulation to change the Canada Labour Code, and ultimately refuse to employ — or fire — someone who refuses to get immunized.
However, Champ said it would be wiser to work with unions, which have a duty to represent all their members — including the unvaccinated — and suggested that both sides may end up agreeing to a provision for extended leave without pay for those workers who refuse vaccination.
In theory, he added, the federal government could even require vaccinations in all Canadian workplaces if it were willing to use the federal Emergencies Act. But the Liberal government has resisted using that legislation during the pandemic, and has left most decisions on delivering health care in the pandemic up to provinces.
The NDP says it would move faster than the Liberals, and require mandatory vaccinations for federal workers and travellers by Labour Day, not the end of October.
Trudeau on Tuesday deflected questions about the risk of politicizing vaccinations and the possible effect that could have on increasing vaccine hesitancy, casting it instead as a public health imperative.
“We are unequivocal about it. The Conservative party is not,” he said. “They won’t even say whether or not all their candidates are fully vaccinated in this election.
“There is a clear choice Canadians will get to make in this election about how we end this pandemic, and how we build back better, including with important economic and social programs, like child care. And I’m looking forward to Canadians making that choice.”
On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said health-care employees will be required to have received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the first of September, and their second dose by the first of October. “We cannot afford to keep staff in contact with patients if they are not vaccinated,” he said. But he couldn’t say whether those who declined would be fired, paid, or partially paid.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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