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‘Chaos and confusion’: Government error on trucker vaccine mandate sparks disarray

“It’s created a whole disaster,” said Private Motor Truck Council of Canada president Mike Millian
Vehicles sit idling on Thousand Island Parkway waiting to cross into the US, on Monday Nov. 8, 2021. The Canada Border Services Agency said Wednesday that a vaccine mandate for truckers would not come into effect this Saturday as planned. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Botched messaging from the federal government is wreaking havoc among the transport community, and could choke already strained supply chains, says the head of a Canadian trucking organization.

The Canada Border Services Agency said Wednesday that a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing into Canada from the United States would not come into effect Saturday as planned. But the government backtracked the next day and stated the rule would go into force this weekend after all.

The end of the exemption for truck drivers and other non-essential workers means they must be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a two-week quarantine and pre-arrival molecular test for COVID-19.

However, numerous big-riggers — some unvaccinated — were dispatched during the 20-hour window in which Ottawa’s erroneous announcement spread through the sector, according to the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada.

“It’s created a whole disaster,” said president Mike Millian, who was surprised at news that seemed to reverse plans in the works for two months and discussed in an online meeting with government officials hours earlier on Wednesday.

“Governments are supposed to provide clarity and calmness, and what has gone on … provided nothing but chaos and confusion.”

The quarantine will leave truckers, who are typically paid by the mile, out a paycheque, said Millian, whose council represents companies with in-house fleets such as Loblaws and Home Hardware as well as several that bring oxygen supplies to Canadian hospitals.

“We’re in favour of vaccines. But the issue is, we can’t look at public health orders in a silo,” he said Friday.

Federal officials told industry representatives in a virtual meeting that afternoon that border officers will be encouraged to use “discretion” when deciding whether to fine truckers who failed to complete a pre-arrival test, said Millian and the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

Border authorities will treat with “flexibility” truckers who have not submitted proof of vaccination via the ArriveCan app or web portal, said Alexander Cohen, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

But the quarantine rule is absolute, Millian added.

“Our frustration point is you’re making drivers and industry pay for a mistake that was made by government.”

Government representatives offered no explanation for the incorrect communications emailed to media Wednesday night.

“The health and safety of Canadians is our priority. The biggest threat to our supply chain is the COVID-19 pandemic and the best tool to end the fight against this virus is vaccination,” Marjolaine Provost, spokeswoman for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, said in an email Friday.

“Furthermore, calls have been made to industry associations to ensure that they have the correct information, and as such we are confident that the industry will work to adapt to the new requirements coming into (effect) for tomorrow.”

Unvaccinated American big-riggers will also be turned back at the border beginning Saturday, with the U.S. preparing to impose similar restrictions on Canadian truckers on Jan. 22.

Up to 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular cross-border trips will be sidelined as a result of the mandate, adding further bottlenecks and potential price hikes to the flow of goods ranging from food to auto parts and medical devices, say the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations.

While returning truckers who have not been jabbed must quarantine “immediately” after making their delivery, that definition is flexible.

“A driver may deliver their load in Alberta but live in Ontario, so they’ll be able to stay at hotels along the way so long as they abide by the local guidelines,” Millian said, citing Friday’s meeting with bureaucrats.

“Officials have clarified that a suitable place of quarantine does not include the cab of a truck and must be done at a verifiable address,” notes the trucking alliance website.

The federal Conservatives and trade groups representing oil, manufacturing and export companies have called for a delay to the trucker vaccine mandate, which was announced on Nov. 19.

Health professionals are encouraging vaccine mandates across sectors in the long term as the Omicron variant continues to surge.

“For the long haul, there would be a net benefit to maximizing vaccination in mobile people. But at the moment is it something where you’re going to see a big, measurable difference across the board? Not exactly right now,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.

In the meantime Heidi Boudreault, president of the Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association, says her members are struggling to find alternate sources of supply as backlogs build and bottlenecks contract.

“We’re also facing price increases, almost on a daily basis throughout different suppliers,” said Boudreault, who owns Calgary-based Denca Cabinets, founded by her parents in 1977.

The cost of laminates rose 10 to 20 per cent over the past two years, with wood products and painting supplies also more expensive, she said. Components for kitchen appliances and plumbing fixtures, which her company sells as well, are increasingly tough to source.

“Obviously, supply chain disruptions are becoming increasingly disturbing,” she said.

READ MORE: Ottawa to go ahead with trucker vaccine mandate after stating it would scrap it

– Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press