Diversity is a reality in Canadian public schools. Teachers and students do not all share the same race or ethnicity, belong to the same religion, or hold the same beliefs. Nor should they.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has often said that diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. That is why public schools celebrate diversity and accommodate differences. Parents are far more likely to keep their children in the public school system if they are supported and validated by their school.
Public schools need to serve all families, not just those whose beliefs happen to line up with those of the majority. This is why we should be deeply concerned by the recent push for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines in schools. For example, each of the four major teachers’ unions in Ontario has called for vaccines to be made mandatory for all teachers and students.
Teachers’ unions in other provinces, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, have issued a similar demand. According to these unions, mandatory vaccines are needed to keep students and teachers safe this fall.
It is highly unusual for any union to demand unilateral changes to the working conditions of its own members. Apparently, these teachers’ unions have decided that they no longer wish to represent anyone who chooses to remain unvaccinated.
It’s not hard to see why.
As vaccination rates increase across Canada, people who oppose the COVID-19 vaccines have become increasingly unpopular. That’s because vaccines are the key to ending this pandemic. As more people get vaccinated, it will be easier to get back to normal. Thus, it makes sense to strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated.
However, in our enthusiasm to promote vaccines, we must be careful not to run roughshod over the rights of people who hold different opinions. The fact that those who oppose the COVID-19 vaccines or other vaccines make up only a small minority of Canadians does not mean that their beliefs do not matter. In fact, it is precisely when we have small and unpopular minorities that our commitment to diversity is put to the test.
Under the law, all Canadians, including students and teachers, have the right to decide on their own medical treatment. If someone wants to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion or forego surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, that is their choice—no matter how misguided that decision might be.
The same is true of vaccinations.
It’s also important to note that altering the terms of someone’s employment based on vaccination status is considerably more drastic than restricting their ability to attend a football game, visit a casino, or board an airplane. Encouraging people to get vaccinated is one thing. Coercing them is entirely another thing.
In addition, making vaccines mandatory is one of the surest ways to fuel vaccine hesitancy.
The good news is that Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. More than 80 percent of eligible Canadians have had at least one shot while over 70 percent are fully vaccinated. This will significantly blunt the effects of the fourth wave since vaccinated people are far less likely to be hospitalized or to die with COVID-19.
More than a century ago, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier famously employed a “sunny ways” approach to governance. Based on Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun,” Laurier knew that it made far more sense to win people over through persuasion than to use the blunt hand of government coercion.
Governments of all political stripes would do well to follow Laurier’s example today. We would all benefit from an approach that brings people together rather than forces them apart.
When it comes to vaccines, let’s allow students, teachers, and other public school employees to decide on their own medical treatments. They might not make the correct decision, but that is the price we pay for living in a diverse and democratic country.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.