A mandatory vaccination policy for GNWT public servants is expected to be announced next week, Premier Caroline Cochrane said in a news conference on Sept. 22.
“We just did a cross-jurisdictional review of the mandatory vaccinations across the country and we are looking at putting it into a format that works for the NWT specifically,” the premier said.
The government is consulting with territorial organizations, such as the Union of Northern Workers (UNW), as well as Indigenous governments and members of the legislative assembly, according to Cochrane.
Both the UNW and Dene Nation told NNSL Media that they want healthy communities and increased vaccination rates, but did not fully commit to the idea of mandatory vaccinations for close to 6,000 civil servants.
Todd Parsons, president of the UNW, said in an emailed statement that the union intends to work closely with the GNWT in coming up with a policy that will promote a safe workplace.
As of Sept. 22, the union had not seen a finalized government policy on mandatory vaccinations.
“As an employer, the GNWT is obligated to provide a safe work environment while respecting workers’ human rights and legal rights to privacy,” Parsons said.
He pointed out that if a worker can’t be vaccinated for reasons protected under human rights legislation, the territorial government will have to ensure the new policy “provides options for accommodation.”
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said the issue was raised during an Indigenous leaders conference call with the GNWT on Sept. 20, but said ultimately it will be up to the GNWT to make the decision on how mandatory vaccinations are implemented, including working out issues around collective and individual human rights.
He remains wary of the territorial government’s overall approach to consultation, and he said even though Indigenous leaders weren’t given a lot of time to consider the idea, they provided feedback.
He noted that the GNWT hasn’t listened to their calls to close the border and limit alcohol sales, which he feels are contributing to viral spread and hurting small communities during the pandemic.
Yakeleya said at least some requirements may be required for employees who work closely with vulnerable populations.
“We see that vaccines are our only shield to mitigate the risks in our communities and to our people,” he said. “Mandatory (vaccines) may be needed for frontline employees that are in contact with the public because they’re the ones in contact with Elders and youth.”
While many Indigenous leaders have been strongly advocating for their populations to get vaccinated, Yakeleya said some members just won’t comply. He attributes it mostly to conspiracy theory thinking and misinformation on social media.
“We know there’s hesitancy to (get) the vaccine and having people vaccinated, but the vaccine is working and the chiefs are seeing that,” he said. “But there’s also a huge majority of people now who want the vaccine and recognize that this is about survival.”
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby was hesitant to support mandatory vaccinations for GNWT employees immediately.
“I have a lot of concerns around what a policy like this means with respect to the legal rights of citizens, so I don’t want to comment on something that I’m not sure the legality of,” she said.
She said she would like to get more information from advisers with the legislature’s Accountability and Oversight Committee, which is made up of regular MLAs and provides feedback to the GNWT and cabinet on various policies.
MLAs have provided input on a draft policy on mandatory vaccines for health-care workers and those in the vulnerable sector, but a finalized document hadn’t been provided to them as of noon on Sept. 23.
She was uncertain as of Sept. 23 if one for all employees will be coming to committee.
“All MLAs have been getting a lot of questions from our constituents regarding mandatory vaccines, so I do think cabinet and the GNWT must address it and let people know what their position is,” she said in response to questions about the timeliness of the policy’s rollout.
“The government needs to ensure that the legal rights of all citizens are being upheld while balancing the risk to public health. I hope that these decisions will be made in the context of a fact-based risk assessment rooted in reality; that a data-driven decision is made. Not one that is reactive (and) made out of fear.”