Latest update: May 10
Canada is not currently using COVID-19 vaccine passports, also known as proof of COVID-19 vaccination, to facilitate international travel. This means that vaccinated travellers are treated the same as unvaccinated travellers.
But, this could change at any moment. Debates are happening across Canada and abroad about whether or not to introduce COVID-19 vaccine passports for many aspects of daily life, including international travel. Canada’s Prime Minister has signalled that vaccine passports for travel are “to be expected” in the months to come. The province of Quebec is set to become the first province in Canada to begin providing vaccinated individuals with digital proof of vaccination in the form of a QR code — although, the province has yet to announce when and where residents will be required to show their proof.
Meanwhile, around the world COVID-19 vaccine passports are already a reality, with countries like Israel requiring proof of vaccination to access certain aspects of daily life, and the European Union paving the way to allow vaccinated Americans to enter by the summer.
Will Canada follow suit and introduce COVID-19 vaccine passports?
This is your regularly updated guide to the latest details on COVID-19 vaccine passports and travel to Canada. In this guide, we’re focused on the use of vaccine passports only in the context of international travel to and from Canada. We will not be discussing the use of vaccine passports to access other aspects of daily life (gyms, concerts, restaurants, etc.). Be sure to check back often for the latest updates.
Can a person with a COVID-19 vaccine travel to Canada right now?
At this time, fully vaccinated individuals cannot travel to Canada unless they meet one of the exemptions from Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions. If you are exempt, you must follow all special travel requirements, including presenting a negative COVID-19 test at entry and undergoing mandatory 14-day quarantine. Those travelling to Canada by air also must undergo a mandatory three-day hotel stopover when they land in Canada — at their own expense.
So, is Canada planning to introduce special travel rules for people who have been fully vaccinated?
While the ethics of vaccine passports are hotly debated — and we’ll dive into this later — it’s useful to remember that at this point in time travel to Canada is so severely restricted that it’s highly unlikely that vaccine passports would cause any additional restrictions, at least in the short term. During the pandemic, we often discuss borders in binary terms: open or closed, but in practice, borders function more like a water faucet — the tap can be turned to increase or decrease the flow of water. Right now, Canada’s faucet has been closed most of the way, but a few drops of water are still able to pass through — those who are exempt from the travel restrictions. Allowing international travellers to use proof of vaccination could enable Canada to open the faucet a little bit more.
Requiring proof of vaccination to enter the country could allow Canada to admit more travellers in the short-term, but the border would still be further restricted than it was before the pandemic. If the Canadian government wants to advocate for equitable access to travel, the goal would have to be to employ vaccine passports as a temporary measure — a stopgap — to increase access to travel until it is safe to return to pre-pandemic measures.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and you can expect many questions to be debated in the weeks and months to come: Does the Canadian government want to commit to a return to pre-pandemic border measures, or should we expect heightened travel restrictions longer term? How long would Canada keep a vaccine passport requirement in place? Would there be exemptions for those who can’t access vaccines (children, those from countries with lower vaccine supplies, etc.)? Would people who refuse to receive a vaccine, for whatever reason, be accommodated in any way, such as being able to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test instead?
Although we do not have answers to these questions, Canadian politicians have been dropping hints about their stance on the use of vaccine passports for travel to Canada.
What are Canada’s political leaders saying about COVID-19 vaccine passports?
In recent weeks, Canadian political leaders and policymakers have been indicating that requiring proof of vaccination for international travel is likely in the months to come. Speaking to press on April 27 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that his government is expecting to require proof of vaccination for travel, “As was the case pre-pandemic, certificates of vaccination are a part of international travel to certain regions and are naturally to be expected when it comes to this pandemic and the coronavirus. How we actually roll that out in alignment with partners and allies around the world, it’s something that we’re working on right now.”
Canada’s Immigration Minister, Marco Mendicino, was asked about vaccine passports during a press conference on May 5, suggesting that his department is involved in “discussions around setting a universal standard for vaccinations to promote the safe travel of those who have been vaccinated.” However, the department has not released any official statements regarding plans to introduce new proof of vaccination requirements for travel.
According to a report by iPolitics, Canada’s Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, stated that Canada is in talks with the G7 countries about collaborating on this effort, “The G7 partners agreed that there needs to be some consistency and some collaboration among the countries, so we have some kind of system that would be recognizable, no matter where a person was travelling.” Hajdu specifically named the United States as one of the countries with whom Canada is discussing, “We are having conversations with the Americans, but also through the G7 and many other international forums, exploring this idea of some form of […] evidence of vaccination at international borders.”
Notably, the United States government has come out with strong opposition to the idea of vaccine passports, with White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, stating, “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.” It’s unclear how much influence the American policy will have on Canada, but the United States is Canada’s largest economic trading partner and the two countries share the longest border in the world — so, policy decisions in the U.S. will, at the very least, inform the Canadian conversation.
Despite the hardline approach taken by the Biden Administration, Hajdu appears to be carefully weighing the possibility of using vaccination certification for travel purposes, “We are having those conversations about what international travel might look like, and what kinds of criteria would need to go into any kind of vaccination certification process, and how we deal with the equity issues that will likely arise as a result of inequitable access to vaccination globally,” Minister Hajdu stated.
What are the equity issues surrounding the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports for travel? And, could the benefits outweigh the risks? Let’s dive into what the experts are saying.
The arguments for and against COVID-19 vaccine passports for travel to Canada
COVID-19 vaccine passports are a contentious subject. Again, in this article, we’re only focused on the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports in the context of international travel — but additional questions and concerns surround the broader use of vaccine passports to access broader aspects of daily life.
On March 31, 2021, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Expert Panel on COVID-19 published a new report titled Scientific Considerations for Using COVID-19 Vaccination Certificates. The report details the many considerations for and against the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports for international travel.
In arguing for the use of vaccine passports, the report notes that Canada’s strict travel requirements “could be replaced with a vaccination certificate or a combination of test and vaccination certificate” and that this could “increase safety and ease some costs.” Many individuals have been unable to see family members for over a year, and thousands of approved permanent residents have been unable to travel to Canada to activate their status. As detailed in the report, the introduction of vaccine passports for travel “could be a significant benefit for Canadians.”
However, the report also details important ethical concerns about the broad use of vaccine certificates creating a tiered society with a “a ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ dynamic between those who are vaccinated and those who are not.” Especially concerning, is the potential for this tiered system to further exacerbate existing social inequities, particularly among racialized, indigenous and other disadvantaged groups, “These communities may lack trust in established medical institutions and/or their governments due to historical harms, such as experimentation without consent in residential schools and persistent inequitable care experienced in the medical system, leading to comparatively low vaccination intentions.”
Of course, considering that access to travel is restricted at unprecedented levels across Canada, it could be argued that, at least in the context of international travel, vaccine passports could increase access in solving short-term issues of family separation and approved permanent residents stuck outside the country. However, in the long-term conversation about international travel, as well as in conversations about the broader use of vaccine passports in Canada to access other aspects of daily life, the ethical concerns put forward by the report would need to be addressed in order to promote access and equity.