Air carriers are very patchy in granting religious exemptions from travelers’ vaccination mandate: internal documents

The power to grant religious exemptions to the traveler vaccination mandate that the federal government has delegated to air carriers has been described by Air Canada as “illegal” and “constitutionally tainted” and has led to wide differences over how the Unvaccinated travelers were being handled by different airlines, internal documents reveal.

And while Transport Canada has left it up to carriers to decide what constitutes “sincere religious belief,” the department has been monitoring data on enforcement of its vaccination mandate for travelers and transportation personnel.

A Transport Canada information package entitled “Vaccination Mandate – Reporting Snapshot for ADMs [Assistant Deputy Ministers]with information through April 19, was made available recently through a federal court filing.

The package is associated with the affidavit of Jennifer Little, the Transport Canada official whose team wrote policy on the traveler’s vaccination mandate. Little and other government witnesses and experts submitted affidavits and were cross-examined in or around June in four lawsuits challenging the travel warrant.

A briefing slide in the filing, titled “Passenger Compliance Overview,” shows the number of exemptions granted by more than 70 air carriers in the “Essential Care,” “Medical” and “Religious” categories.

Under “KEY POINTS,” the slide states that Air Canada “has not approved any religious exceptions to date.”

In the next bullet point, it says, “Westjet reported 50 religious exception requests and 90 granted. Westjet continues to receive the highest number of requests week over week of all reporting entities. »

Another “key point” noted is that WestJet has continued to report no denied boarding since the report began.

A different slide, titled “Passenger Exceptions Breakdown,” shows that 872 religious exceptions were granted out of 2,272 requests, with WestJet responsible for 633 of them.

Other carriers were a distant second, with Swoop at 50, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines at 49 and Air Transat at 39. Individual carrier acceptance and rejection rates were not provided.

While Air Canada did not appear in the “Top 5 Companies” chart for religious exemptions, having granted none, it came in third for denials across all types of exceptions and modes of transportation. Flair Airlines recorded 350 refusals, VIA Rail 347 and Air Canada 251.

The travel vaccination mandate put in place by Transport Canada on October 30 did not allow for compassionate exemptions, but it did allow carriers to grant medical and religious exemptions to comply with human rights legislation. .

The Liberal government suspended the mandate for domestic travel on June 20, but said it could be reinstated depending on circumstances.

“inevitable litigation”

Air Canada has pushed back against the government’s decision to delegate responsibility for granting religious exceptions to carriers, warning of potential litigation due to constitutional issues and unequal treatment of travellers. Evidence also shows that the airline did not grant any religious exemptions in mid-April.

Some of Air Canada’s concerns were reflected in a letter from the industry association of which it is a member, the National Airlines Council of Canada, sent to MPs in December and reported by The Globe and Mail.

“Individual companies in the private sector should not be responsible for determining whether a person’s religious beliefs are ‘sufficient’ to merit an exemption from a federally imposed public health obligation, nor should companies nor have the means to assess a person’s religious beliefs,” the letter allegedly said.

Concerns specific to Air Canada have now been revealed as part of the travel warrant court documents.

Attached to Little’s affidavit, emails were exchanged between Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Air Canada’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, Marc Barbeau.

In a Nov. 26 letter to Alghabra and Justice Minister David Lametti, Barbeau said Air Canada supports the vaccine mandate and accepts that religious exemptions “may be required as a matter of public policy.”

Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc, left to right, Minister of Transportation Omar Alghabra and Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos make an announcement on the end of vaccination mandates for domestic travellers, transportation workers and federal employees, in Ottawa on June 14, 2022. (The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle)

The airline, however, has “strongly” argued that the responsibility for granting exemptions for religious belief should not be delegated to air carriers.

“The design of the proposed interim order as it relates to the implementation of a religious belief exemption is constitutionally flawed,” Barbeau wrote.

Barbeau said the government must retain direct responsibility for ensuring respect for passengers’ religious freedom.

He went so far as to call the program an “illegal delegation of powers” that would “severely” undermine the mandate of the vaccine and lead to “inevitable litigation”.

Alghabra’s response

In a response to Barbeau on December 3, Alghabra said the delegation of authority was not illegal, since Air Canada is subject to the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA).

“Rather than being a delegation of authority, the purpose and effect of the provisions referred to in your letter are simply to recognize these obligations imposed on carriers under the CHRA and to provide carriers with sufficient flexibility to accommodate passengers in circumstances where they would be legally required to do so under the law,” he wrote.

The government had defined its travel vaccine mandate as ‘unique in the world’ in terms of stringency and had taken the decision not to allow compassionate exemptions for people needing to care for a relative or attend funeral. It allowed carriers to grant exemptions themselves since they are required to comply with the CHRA.

Barbeau was not satisfied with Alghabra’s response and sent another letter on December 7.

“The administration of an exemption scheme should be carried out by a single government agency, rather than by several operators who, even in good faith, will not be able to do so in a uniform manner and will lack the necessary information which does not are available only to the government to defend any challenge to such exemptions based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he wrote.

Alghabra responded several months later, on March 17, making the same arguments previously made.

Different approaches

As Transport Canada data indicates, different carriers have charted different paths when it comes to granting religious exemptions.

The Epoch Times contacted WestJet for comment on the guidelines it used to grant religious exemptions at an apparently much higher rate than other carriers, but no response was received at press time.

While Air Canada hasn’t taken a public stance against the COVID-19 restrictions affecting the industry, WestJet did when pressure mounted on the federal government this spring.

CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech, who took over as WestJet CEO in February, publicly criticized the transport mask mandate in April and the vaccine mandate in late May.

“As vaccines do not prevent the spread of the virus since [Omicron]there is no more logic to maintain it”, von Hoensbroech said on Twitter.

‘Inconsistent’

A veteran religion and conscience lawyer says Air Canada was ‘inconsistent in its reasoning’ regarding granting exemptions, as it did not protest the assessment of medical exemption requests .

“If, as they say, the government did not have the power to delegate the assessment and granting of religious exemptions, then the same can be said of medical exemptions,” says Barry W. Bussey, CEO of First Freedom. Foundation (Canada).

Transport Canada data from April shows Air Canada granted 50 “essential or emergency care” and 170 “medical contraindication” exemptions.

Bussey pointed out that Air Canada has been accommodating religious groups for years by offering them meal replacements, and failure to do so could face a human rights complaint.

“The result was that religious applicants were discriminated against while those with health issues were not,” Bussey said.

The Epoch Times contacted Air Canada for comment, but did not hear back.

Noah Chartier

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Noé Chartier is an Epoch Times reporter based in Montreal. Twitter: @NChartierET Gettr: @nchartieret


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