Managers will decide on religious vaccine exemptions for federal public servants

October 29, 2021
Managers will decide on religious vaccine exemptions for federal public servants

The federal government is advising managers they can use their own discretion when determining whether an employee is exempt from getting the COVID-19 vaccine because of their religious beliefs, Radio-Canada has learned.

The guidance comes in a government directive for executives, obtained by Radio-Canada, and outlines how managers should deal with an employee that seeks an exemption.

“The validity of the belief itself must not be challenged by the manager; They must determine only if the belief is sincerely held by the employee,” according to a document from the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Labour lawyer Marc Boudreau said the flexibility granted in this policy raises questions about how firmly the government plans to apply the rules.

Boudreau said the guidelines clearly tell managers not to contest any demands they consider sincere.

“I doubt that the government has established those rules in order to defend them in front of the Supreme Court,” he said.

WATCH | Labour lawyer Marc Boudreau on concerns of fraudulent claims:

Vaccination exemption policy for federal employees more ‘political’ than ‘legal,’ labour lawyer says

Labour lawyer Marc Boudreau says the wording of the policy leaves the process open to fraudulent exemption claims. The policy advises managers to use their own discretion when determining whether an employee is exempt from vaccination due to religious beliefs. 1:06

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise of imposing a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for all federal public servants and delivered on that promise earlier this month.

In a statement, a spokesperson with the Treasury Board Secretariat said about 20,000 federal public servants in the Core Public Administration (CPR) had yet to provide their vaccination status ahead of the deadline on Friday.

Those who do not provide their status or choose not to be vaccinated will be placed on unpaid leave as of Nov. 15.

Employees who make false declarations will face disciplinary consequences that could include dismissal.

Public servants protested outside the Public Service Alliance of Canada building in Ottawa this week saying unions weren’t advocating for them in the face of a vaccine mandate. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Guidelines raise questions

Chantal Beaupré, a labour lawyer who also teaches at the University of Ottawa, said the guidelines for federal government managers are similar to those circulating in the private sector.

She said this also makes life difficult for lawyers because few arbitrators or administrative tribunals have rendered decisions that can help with the interpretation of various vaccination policies.

“If I was a supervisor receiving … this statement and these directives, I would have a lot of questions that I would be asking myself. I would have a lot of questions as to how do I really assess,” she said.

WATCH | Labour lawyer Chantal Beaupré on questions raised:

Challenges to vaccination exemption policies likely to shape workplaces in the future, lawyer says

Chantal Beaupré, labour lawyer and professor at the University of Ottawa, says the language in the federal government’s vaccination exemption policy is likely to spark questions and challenges from both managers and employees. 1:11

That grey area worries Stéphane Aubry, vice-president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union that represents more than 60,000 federal employees.

“We expect that this will lead to a situation where there has been some discrimination and members may come to us saying that, ‘Well, my manager refused’ … and we would see the grey zone that the manager was put in,” said Aubry.

In a statement, Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) — representing just less than 200,000 workers — said it too will stand up for its members and represent them on a case-by-case basis in situations where the policy is unreasonably enforced.

The next weekly update on public service vaccination data is expected on Nov. 3.

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