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Military eases vaccine mandate, presses ahead with discipline for unvaccinated troops

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces will press ahead with the forced expulsion of dozens of unvaccinated troops despite a new order from defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre on Friday ending the military’s blanket COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre takes part in an interview at Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. Eyre says the military will press ahead with plans to kick out dozens of unvaccinated troops despite changes to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces will press ahead with the forced expulsion of dozens of unvaccinated troops despite a new order from defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre on Friday ending the military’s blanket COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Eyre said service members are expected to follow legal orders — and that a repeated refusal by some troops to get their shots "raises questions about your suitability to serve in uniform."

"It’s dangerous in the military to have legal orders disobeyed," he said. "It’s a very slippery slope."

The comments came as Eyre released a highly anticipated new vaccine policy that effectively suspends his previous requirement for all Armed Forces members to be fully vaccinated or face disciplinary action.

Vaccines will no longer be required for all those serving in uniform, including as a prerequisite for joining the military, but will instead be based on the roles and responsibilities of individual service members.

The defence chief’s new order includes a list of those who will still need two doses of a Health Canada-approved vaccine, with an emphasis on quick-response units such as special forces and the disaster assistance response team.

There are also requirements based on deployments alongside specific allies or organizations, including those working with NATO or the United Nations, as well as all sailors on warships operating overseas.

"We’ve got to remember that a ship out in the middle of the ocean doesn’t have access to intensive medical care," Eyre said, adding that some allies such as the United States and Japan require military members to have vaccines.

Describing his order as an "interim policy," Eyre said he has ordered a review of the military’s overall approach to vaccinations. At the same time, he reserved the right to implement it again should the pandemic take another turn.

"The medical advice is continuing to evolve," he said. "What is the bare minimum that’s required to protect the force, to protect operational output, while at the same time respecting the individual decisions that members want to make."

The new policy follows months of pressure and questions about the military’s vaccine mandate for as a condition of employment, particularly after most other federal mandates were suspended.

The end of a vaccination requirement for international travellers prompted Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre last month to call for an end to what he described as the military’s "discriminatory and unscientific vaccine mandate."

While the vast majority of service members bared their arms for shots, with 96 per cent having attested to being fully vaccinated, briefing notes prepared for Defence Minister Anita Anand in June revealed that more than 1,100 had not. 

The Defence Department says about 300 service members have been told to hang up their uniforms, while another 100 have left voluntarily. Disciplinary proceedings, including warnings and marks on personal files, have been doled out to hundreds more.

The expulsions come at a time when the military is facing a personnel crisis that Eyre says is affecting its ability to conduct missions, with about 10,000 positions currently sitting vacant.

Conservative Defence critic James Bezan in a statement Friday accused Eyre and Anand of exacerbating the situation by "taking a hardline approach and discharging experienced service members” who have refused to be vaccinated.

“Instead, we urge them to look at imposing lesser administrative penalties for those who refused to follow orders, especially considering the cancellation of the mandate today, and allow them to continue to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces,” he added.

The statement did not say anything about Eyre’s decision to maintain vaccine requirements for certain personnel, and the Conservatives declined to provide additional comment.

Lawyer Phillip Millar, who represents several Armed Forces members who have challenged the military's vaccine mandate in Federal Court, echoed Bezan’s argument that Canada can hardly afford to lose experienced troops.

Eyre was unwavering, however, suggesting those on their way out of uniform were not fit to serve.

“We want members in the Armed Forces who will follow lawful orders and put the safety and security of others first,” he said. “Who will embrace that selfless service … and the values that are inherent in wearing this uniform and serving our country.”

Retired Lt.-Col Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military cases, said he was not surprised the defence chief is pressing ahead with planned releases, saying that failing to do so would be “pointedly inequitable.”

“It would produce a result that would have 200 to 300 people ejected from the CAF … and a few hundred who took the same position regarding vaccination who would remain,” Fowler said in an email.

“The CDS would be unable to credibly distinguish between the two groups. The sole distinguishing feature is that the administration of the process for some went quicker than for others.”

Nonetheless, Fowler said the military’s decision to kick out unvaccinated members without going through a formal legal process has been highly questionable.

“From the start, the CAF has cloaked the issue in terms of ‘discipline’ and obedience of orders, yet has taken the cowardly approach of pointedly avoiding the use of the Code of Service Discipline,” he said, in reference to the military’s disciplinary system.

“That’s a question that needs to be asked: If it was such a significant breach of discipline, why were none of the refusals dealt with under the Code of Service Discipline? Why were no charges laid?”

The Defence Department first reported that the mandate was being re-examined in June, and a draft copy of a revised vaccine policy obtained by the Ottawa Citizen in July suggested vaccine requirements for military personnel would be lifted.

The draft document, which officials said was not approved by Eyre, noted potential legal difficulties ahead to deal with people who were kicked out of the military because of the vaccine mandate, suggesting they could be forced to apply for re-enrolment.

The defence chief would not commit to any specific eligibility for re-enrolment, saying only that he would consider such requests on a case-by-case basis.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press