Trudeau defends vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers amid supply chain concerns

Vehicles sit idling on Thousand Island Parkway waiting to cross into the U.S. on Nov. 8, 2021. The U.S. is expected to impose its own restriction on unvaccinated Canadian truckers on Jan. 22.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the federal government’s decision to implement a vaccination mandate for truck drivers despite warnings that it could worsen price increases and shortages.

Mr. Trudeau told an Ottawa news conference on Wednesday the federal government has been clear since November that the requirement for truckers would come this month.

But critics say the mandate is poorly timed, coming in the winter, when Canadians rely on international supply chains for fresh produce, and that it will push already high levels of inflation even higher.

Until Saturday, truckers were among the essential workers the government had exempted from border rules requiring travellers to be fully vaccinated or quarantine on arrival. Unvaccinated or partly vaccinated foreign truck drivers are to be sent back at the border.

Last week, the Canada Border Services Agency said Canadian truck drivers would remain exempt from the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but three federal cabinet ministers said late the next day in a statement that the announcement was a mistake. They did not explain how this happened, or why it took almost a full day to correct the error.

Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday that truckers have known for months the mandate was coming, and the United States will soon bring an “identical” one into force to ensure truckers are vaccinated for international travel. The U.S. government has not said when it will be implemented, but media reports have pointed to Jan. 22.

“We are aligned with them,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The U.S. mandate has also drawn criticism from business associations and politicians.

In December, 14 Republican senators wrote to President Joe Biden to voice their objections. On Wednesday, Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty warned that because bilateral trade as a share of gross domestic product is “infinitely more important to the Canadian economy,” the impact of the vaccine mandate north of the border will be “dramatically higher.”

Mr. Trudeau said his government has been focused on keeping supply chains moving since the beginning of the pandemic and that will continue.

“We were able to keep the essential flow of goods, medical supplies, of food, flowing back and forth across the border,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We will continue to make sure that we are getting what we need in Canada.”

Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said on Wednesday there is already some evidence at retail stores that the supply chain is “not working effectively.”

“We are seeing empty shelves across the nation,” he said, adding this is due to factors including the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, winter weather and the vaccination mandate.

Prof. Charlebois said Omicron has been a “gut punch” to the food industry, and the addition of the vaccination mandate will likely make things worse. It would have been more prudent for the federal government to bring in the vaccination mandate later, he added.

Suppliers were already feeling the crunch from a shortage of long-haul truckers before the mandate took effect, and it’s only been exacerbated since, said Sandro Saragiotto, the president of Offshore Canada Logistics Inc.

Before the mandate, Mr. Saragiotto said there was a trucker shortage of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent, and now it’s up to 20 per cent. He said he is now paying higher prices for shipments that arrive late.

“The pricing is going higher and higher every day now on the trucking side,” Mr. Saragiotto said. His Ontario-based company brings fresh produce to Canada through the United States. He said he supports vaccination, but it would have made more sense to have the mandate take effect in the spring or summer, when more produce can be sourced within Canada.

“There’s such a labour shortage out there,” he said. “It’s just making it harder. It’s going to be a disaster. Or we just decide we don’t need to eat fresh produce.

“Maybe they don’t care about nectarines or peaches or grapes,” he said of the federal government.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Wednesday the mandate ensures supply chains can operate and be as “risk-free as possible” and is about protecting industry, businesses and workers.

Business groups and the federal Conservatives say the vaccination requirement will slow cross-border trade and drive up the cost of goods.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance conducted a survey that suggested 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian drivers crossing the border could leave the industry because of the vaccination mandate. That shortage is exacerbated by the lower vaccination rates of U.S. truck drivers who cross into Canada, Mr. Beatty said on Wednesday.

Mr. Beatty said his group supports vaccinating truck drivers, but the timing of the new policy is causing “more harm than good.” And he questioned why initiatives such as pop-up vaccination clinics at truck stops weren’t set up first to ensure maximum coverage. Mr. Beatty said the federal government should have co-ordinated with the White House to ensure the mandate was implemented when supply chains are under less stress.

“It’s going to drive up consumer costs enormously with marginal benefit in terms of public health,” Mr. Beatty said, noting that driving a truck is largely a solitary job.

Conservative MP and transport critic Melissa Lantsman said the public-health rules need to be balanced with economic and supply chain constraints.

“At a time when inflation is already at a record high, Canadians will be the ones paying the price for the Trudeau government’s policy decisions that further exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis,” Ms. Lantsman said.

On Friday, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach wrote to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, saying it is imperative that the federal government ensure the continued flow of essential goods across the border. In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Bachrach said Ottawa’s approach to the mandate has created confusion.