Several Yellowknife city councillors don’t support implementing a proof-of-vaccination requirement to increase capacity limits at city facilities.
During a contentious discussion on Monday, only two councillors and the mayor said they were in favour of the proposal. Other councillors said they felt such a policy would create “a two-tiered class system” between residents who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and those who aren’t.
The decision comes after the NWT government enacted a territory-wide public health order last week that limits gatherings to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors. Non-essential businesses and organizations can increase those caps to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors if they check vaccination status and admit only fully vaccinated people (or those who can’t be vaccinated, like children aged under 12).
City staff recommend introducing vaccination checks to return to “near-normal operating capacity” at city facilities, adding many other governments across Canada have adopted vaccine requirements to enter public spaces. Other NWT communities have recently adopted the same proof-of-vaccination rules.
“Demand is definitely there from users,” city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said.
Bassi-Kellett said while operating costs for facilities like the pool, fieldhouse and library remain unchanged, user fees that help offset those costs are greatly affected by capacity limits.
Councillor and deputy mayor Steve Payne expressed the strongest opposition to the vaccination requirement, calling it “pretty excessive” and questioning the justification for the territorial order.
“This is non-inclusive in nature,” he said. “We pride ourselves on being inclusive and treating everybody good and it seems like what we’re doing here now is completely against this. I’m upset about this and it’s detrimental for people’s mental health and their physical health.”
Payne pointed to recent statistics from the territorial government that show, of Covid-19 cases in 2021 so far, 34.1 percent were in people fully vaccinated and 9.9 percent in those partially vaccinated.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola, however, has said comparing infection rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals provides a more accurate picture of who is being infected with Covid-19 in the NWT.
The territory does not routinely publish those rates. The available data shows that while less than 20 percent of the NWT’s population aged over 12 is unvaccinated, unvaccinated people have accounted for 55.1 percent of infections in 2021.
Councillor compares policy to racial segregation
Councillor Niels Konge said he believes city facilities should be considered essential services. He said he doesn’t agree with implementing a vaccine requirement as it will unfairly impact children whose parents don’t support vaccination.
“It’s not the child’s decision,” he said. “This is something that families are forcing on them for whatever the reasons are.”
Konge went as far as comparing the vaccine requirement to some people not being allowed to sit at the front of buses, referencing the racial segregation of Black people through discriminatory laws in North America.
“I think we’re doing the same thing here,” he said.
Councillor Shauna Morgan said that comparison made her feel “nauseous.” She noted vaccination continues to be a choice and consequences for that choice are not the same as discrimination based on race.
“I think that is a really inaccurate and inappropriate comparison to make and could be profoundly disrespectful to people in groups who have historically suffered from systemic oppression,” she said.
In a statement regarding vaccine mandates last month, the NWT Human Rights Commission said personal choice and belief are not protected grounds under the territory’s Human Rights Act, unlike race.
At an earlier meeting, Konge had compared the challenges small businesses face during Covid-19 restrictions to the Sixties Scoop. In that case, he apologized for “the horrible comparison” shortly after Mayor Rebecca Alty said the two were “very different.”
Councillors Robin Williams, Rommel Silverio, and Stacie Smith also voiced opposition to the vaccination requirement on the grounds of fairness.
“I think fairness is always the best and, even if it’s a smaller capacity for a small amount of time until a new health order gets unveiled, at least then the facility’s accessible to everyone,” Williams said.
‘This is an obvious thing we need to do’
Morgan said she favours a vaccination requirement as it prioritizes public health and safety over personal decisions. She compared it to requiring children to get other vaccinations to attend school or restrictions limiting where people can smoke.
“I see this as an obvious thing that we need to do to protect … all of the population,” she said.
Morgan noted limiting capacity will also exclude people from using city facilities. She said councillors shouldn’t be debating the scientific evidence behind vaccine mandates as no one on city council is an expert in epidemiology.
“We have public health experts, we have epidemiologists, and they’ve been working really hard for a long time,” she said. “They have told us that in no uncertain terms, the only way we can protect our healthcare system from completely collapsing and achieve some degree of normal life … the only path forward is vaccination.”
Councillor Julian Morse agreed. He said “laypeople” shouldn’t be debating vaccines which are “an essential part of our modern public healthcare system.” Morse said he supports the policy as the majority of residents are vaccinated and many concerns about Covid-19 vaccines shared with him were based on misinformation.
“If we don’t implement this policy, it is council implicitly saying that we’re going to be restricting access to our facilities. Effectively the council is saying we disagree with the CPHO,” he said, in reference to the chief public health officer.
According to the latest statistics from the territorial government, 83 percent of residents in Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, and Dettah over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Mayor Alty, who said she is in favour of implementing a vaccination requirement, noted the city does not have the power to make public health orders nor determine what is an essential service. She added city facilities are considered high-risk locations for Covid-19 as they host activities like sports that involve heavy breathing and close contact.
Councillors will formally vote on the matter at their next regular meeting on Monday. As the majority of councillors have said they are against requiring proof of vaccination, the measure is unlikely to pass.
The city is separately considering whether to require that city staff be vaccinated against Covid-19, similar to the territorial government’s policy for its employees.