Business leaders are urging Ottawa to ease vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers to relieve the congested supply chain with the United States, while Liberals and Conservatives sparred over the extent of the problem and how to resolve it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the mandate Monday as a necessary step to keep supply chains open, arguing that COVID-19 itself is the biggest risk to Canada's economy.
The mandate, which came into effect after an exemption ended Jan. 15, means Canadian long-haul truck drivers must now be vaccinated against COVID-19 to avoid a two-week quarantine after crossing the border, while unvaccinated non-Canadian truck drivers will be denied entry.
The U.S. brought in its own vaccine mandate for truckers on Saturday, which means that unvaccinated Canadian drivers will also be unable to return below the border.
In separate statements, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition both urged Trudeau to back down.
Perrin Beatty, the president of the chamber, said that while "we strongly favour getting as many people vaccinated as possible," the government should allow more time before imposing the mandate on truckers.
"Until now, governments have considered truckers to be providing an essential service, which has kept supply chains functioning even during the most serious waves of the pandemic," Beatty said in a written response to questions.
But Beatty said the government hasn't produced statistics that show that truckers are a major source of COVID-19 infections in Canada.
Neither Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos nor chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam were able to provide any data about COVID-19 and truck drivers when asked last week at the House of Commons health committee.
"If the government has such figures and has been concerned that they pose a particular threat, they should have had an educational program directed specifically at them long before now and they could have worked with the provinces and industry to set up mobile vaccination clinics near border crossings and truck stops throughout Canada," said Beatty.
"What we are asking for is that they delay implementation at a time when supply chains are under severe pressure and that they use that time to encourage and facilitate vaccinations."
The Canadian Manufacturing Coalition, which represents over 30 manufacturing trade associations, called for a full reversal of the vaccine mandate after meeting Friday with Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
Dennis Darby, the president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, which chairs the coalition, told Champagne that "Canadians are seeing empty shelves" because vaccine mandates are making supply chain bottlenecks worse.
In a statement, Darby said the meeting with Champagne was "a good first step but now we need to see concrete action by the government to start addressing these challenges, starting with reversing the trucker vaccine mandate."
Supply chains were already struggling from two years of pandemic interruption, workers falling ill with COVID-19, and multiple weather events including snowstorms and last fall's flooding in British Columbia.
On Monday, Trudeau showed no signs of adjusting the mandate, and said getting vaccinated was the best way to keep Canada's economy going. He said in French that the Conservatives are heightening fears about empty store shelves.
The prime minister reiterated that the Canadian Trucking Alliance says 90 per cent of truck drivers are already vaccinated. On Sunday, the alliance denounced a convoy of hundreds of truckers now making its way to Ottawa to protest the mandate.
"The reality is that vaccination is the way we are going to get through," Trudeau said in French.
The Conservatives are pressuring Trudeau to lift the mandate, calling it a risk to Canada's economy supply chains and economic recovery.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has called on the government to allow unvaccinated truckers to take rapid tests and argued the effects on public health would be minimal.
O'Toole stopped short of saying Monday that he would meet with the truck convoy. He also refused to indicate whether its participants have his support.
“It’s not for the leader of the Opposition or a political party to attend a protest on the Hill or a convoy," he said in Ottawa.
Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer appeared at a convoy that rolled into Ottawa in 2019 protesting a range of issues, including the Liberal government's energy policies.
Over the weekend, Liberals and Conservatives used social media in warring posts about whether stores shelves were full or empty. Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman was accused of misleading Canadians by sharing a photo of empty shelves that turned out to be a stock image of a British grocery store.
Several Liberal supporters and staffers posted photos of fully stocked shelves as evidence that there was no supply chain issue.