MONTREAL – The federal government is withdrawing from its mandate to vaccinate Canadian truckers three days before it goes into effect.

Ottawa announced in mid-November that truck drivers crossing Canada should be fully vaccinated by this Saturday.

But on Wednesday evening, spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency, Rebecca Purdy, told The Canadian Press that Canadian heavy riggers will not have to self-quarantine if they are not vaccinated or s ‘they only received one dose.

The news surprised Canadian Trucking Alliance President Stephen Laskowski, who said industry officials met with government officials at noon on Wednesday and were told the mandate was still ongoing. for January 15th.

Business associations on both sides of the border had been pushing for a postponement of the restriction, which they said would put additional strain on supply chains amid the latest wave of COVID-19 and severe worker shortages .

The new rule will still take effect for American truckers, who will be turned back at the border unless they have been vaccinated from this weekend.

According to the Trucking Alliance, about 10 percent of the 120,000 Canadian truckers crossing the border may not have been able to work on these routes because they were not affected.

The Canada Border Services Agency declined to say whether the exemption for truckers is temporary or indefinite, or what prompted the change.

The vaccination mandate had already started to have an impact on trucking operations.

“Many of our members have already said that they will not send unvaccinated drivers to the border,” Laskowski said.

The transport companies never opposed the vaccination mandate; “Now is the time,” he said, citing pressure points in the supply chain from clogged ports to sick workers and inflation.

However, the new rule may have encouraged some reluctant workers to roll up their sleeves. A Montreal-based logistics company offered a bonus of $ 10,000 last month to all drivers who received their first dose of the vaccine in mid-January in hopes of building employee loyalty and increasing rates of loss. vaccination.

Another Ontario transport group Titanium, which has a fleet of 800 tractors, says 95 percent of its operators are fully vaccinated.

“It’s more than likely that there isn’t a right time, right? They’ve had this exemption for quite a while. So maybe now is the right time,” the CEO said. Ted Daniel.

Nonetheless, a myriad of trade groups have called on Ottawa to extend Saturday’s deadline.

Recent flooding in British Columbia and China’s “zero COVID policy” have deepened supply chain bottlenecks, the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition said in a letter signed by 18 association leaders from the industry, which required a delay. The Petroleum Services Association of Canada has said the vaccine mandate “will only make matters worse.”

Nearly two-thirds of the roughly $ 21 billion in agrifood imports that Canada receives from the United States each year arrive by truck, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. Dependence on American products is particularly high in winter.

“We’re already seeing empty shelves in stores right now. We just don’t want more,” he said.

“The stakes are much higher on our side than on the American side, because America will buy raw materials to transform at the country, while in Canada, most of the products which we buy from the Americans are ready to be marketed, like processed products and foods. “

The United States is expected to promulgate its own vaccination mandate for essential border workers on January 22.

American Trucking Association chief economist Bob Costello estimates that just under half of the 28,000 American drivers who regularly carry freight across the border will no longer be able to do so, posing a threat to the United States. the correct supply of goods.

“We want everyone to get vaccinated. We are not anti-vax. But this is a bunch of people, for some reason – I’m not going to point the finger at – they don’t get vaccinated at a high rate, “Costello said, citing” very independent “drivers.

Omicron-related labor shortages are indeed affecting critical sectors, said Laurel Lennox, spokesperson for Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

“We also know that vaccination is the best way to fight this pandemic, to protect the health and safety of workers and to keep our economy running,” she said in an email Tuesday.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole warned last week that “we’re going to see the prices skyrocket for groceries, for everything,” and that the Liberal government’s vaccine mandate would spark “divisions and pink slips “.

The job vacancy rate in transportation and warehousing reached 5.2% in the third quarter of 2021, below the average of 5.4% in all sectors, according to Statistics Canada.

However, the Trucking HR Canada trade group said the number of job vacancies among truck drivers in particular increased by 20% from the second quarter of 2020 to reach 22,990 jobs, for a job vacancy rate of around 8% between July and September.

Days before Saturday’s deadline, the Canadian Trucking Alliance said the government had not provided full details regarding compliance.

The ArriveCan app or web portal remains the only way to submit immunization information, including for U.S. truckers starting Jan. 15, the Canada Border Services Agency confirmed in an email. Additional proof of vaccination may be required at the border, she wrote on Tuesday.

The agency will have “mechanisms” to facilitate cross-border trucking, but “will not compromise the health and safety of Canadians in the name of border wait times,” Purdy said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 12, 2022.

– With files from Jordan Press in Ottawa

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press