MONTREAL — The trucking industry's hardline stance against the vaccine mandate for drivers marks a wrong turn, experts say, arguing the sector should have been better prepared for the January deadline.
The Liberal government announced in November that all Canadian truckers looking to cross the border from the United States would need to be vaccinated in order to avoid a 14-day quarantine, a policy that came into effect last Saturday.
Warning of potential further damage to an already crimped supply chain, the Canadian Trucking Alliance urged the federal government over the past two months to keep the industry exempt from cross-border vaccine rules, or to delay them until 2023.
Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, questioned the wisdom of truckers' lobbying strategy, given how firmly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau staked out his position in favour of vaccine mandates during last year's federal election.
"Trudeau really drilled in on putting the pressure on for vaccines," Turnbull said. "If some companies are making an effort and others aren't, I don't get it.
"It's another thing again if companies are really resisting it, as though government doesn't have the right to make us do this," she said.
Some big-riggers feel strongly that Ottawa should stay out of their way. On Sunday, a "Freedom Convoy" is slated to roll out from British Columbia en route to the capital for a demonstration against the mandate at the end of next week. As of Friday afternoon, the campaign had raised just over $1 million from donors in under a week, according to its GoFundMe page.
Up to 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular trips across the Canada-U.S. border would likely be sidelined as a result of the vaccine mandate in both countries, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations.
However Andrew Steele, a vice-president at consulting firm Strategy Corp., said polls show public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of strong vaccine requirements for essential workers, and that companies and trade groups need to read the room.
"If you're making a public relations or government relations strategy, you have to align it with public opinion. Governments, especially in a high-stakes, massive crisis like this, don't run in the face of public opinion and do the opposite," he said.
Trade groups say that while several trucking companies have 100 per cent vaccination rates and offer bonuses to workers who get jabbed, the majority of fleets do not require inoculation.
In contrast, many companies in banking, insurance and telecommunications — all federally regulated sectors — require employees who work on site to be fully vaccinated. They include the Royal Bank of Canada, the Bank of Montreal, Sun Life, BCE Inc. and Vidéotron, according to their emailed responses.
Large companies such as Air Canada boasted vaccination rates above 96 per cent by November and suspended hundreds of employees who did not meet the vaccination requirement. Canada Life and Sasktel say 93 per cent and 96 per cent of their employees are vaccinated respectively, though unvaccinated workers are allowed to take regular rapid tests.
Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, said the association can do little other than offer education to member companies and nudge them to push for vaccination among their drivers.
"We pass on the info to them and then it's up to them to pass it on to their drivers," he said.
But Millian also said he knows of at least one 60-tractor fleet where only two drivers are vaccinated.
"It's hard to have a plan B. I mean, obviously, you're trying to find more drivers," he said, noting that recruitment campaigns were well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There was already 22,900 vacancies. It's not like there was a plethora of drivers sitting on the side of the road that we could just walk out and put in the trucks."
Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan announced on Dec. 7 that vaccination will become mandatory for all workers in federally regulated industries, though no timeline has been laid out.
"We live in a democracy and we can disagree with the government," said Teamsters Canada spokesman Stéphane Lacroix, though he clarified that he supports vaccination generally.
"Sooner or later it’s going to become mandatory."
A new internal poll by the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, which represents about 200 companies with trucking fleets including Tim Hortons and Home Hardware, found that 23 per cent of the 70 fleets that responded oblige their drivers to get jabbed.
"They're independent by nature, right? They spend most of their time in a truck cab by themselves out on the road," Millian said. "They kind of like the freedom, and I think that's part of it for sure."
Steele said that attitude makes it all the more urgent for industry insiders, especially drivers, to make the argument for inoculation.
"The most convincing person to help a truck driver get a vaccination may be another truck driver, not a government official in a white lab coat, not a head of a transport company," he said.
"It's friends and family who are the most effective way to overcome a lot of the vaccine resistance ... The associations can advocate, but I think it's an obligation of individuals in that industry."
Laurel Lennox, spokeswoman for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said the industry has been encouraging vaccinations.
"The biggest threat to supply chains is COVID — and our best tool is vaccines," she said in an email.
"The volume of cross-border truck traffic after the mandate was applied has not varied significantly," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2022.
Companies in this story: (TSX:RY, TSX:BMO, TSX:BCE, TSX:SLF, TSX:CL, TSX:QBR.B)
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press