As the debate heats up over what's behind the images of empty grocery store shelves in parts of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers says the supply issues affecting some popular products began long before the Canada-U.S. cross-border vaccine mandates.
Still, the organization says flexibility around the rules barring unvaccinated U.S. truckers may ease anxiety for shoppers and retailers alike.
"We've had to be flexible for two years now, we've had to be reactive and nimble," federation chair Giancarlo Trimarchi told CBC News. "This is one of those times I think we need to be applying some of the same principles to our mandate."
For days now, images of scantly stocked shelves have fuelled accusations that the federal Liberal government is adding unnecessary pressures to a supply chain already hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic by requiring that anyone driving a transport truck across into Canada be vaccinated.
One such image, posted by Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, was later found to have been taken at a store in northern England.
Feds double down on mandate
Last Saturday, the U.S. barred unvaccinated Canadian drivers from entering the country, mirroring Canada's border restrictions for American truckers. On Tuesday, the Canadian government doubled down on its mandate, which took effect Jan. 15, saying truckers and the wider industry have had months to prepare for the new rule. Travellers have been subject to such a rule since the fall.
"Our plan is to defeat COVID and end the pandemic as quickly as possible. What we're doing right now is for the protection of truck drivers but also for the protection of our supply chains and our economy," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said.
"The best way to deal with COVID is through vaccination."
WATCH | Government has given truckers enough leeway, minister says:
That doubling down comes as a convoy of protesters — including truckers and members of groups broadly opposed to public health mandates — is making its way to Ottawa to stage a demonstration on Parliament Hill. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has said it strongly disapproves of the demonstration.
Trimarchi says it's true that vaccines have been readily available for some time and that the federation understands the government's position. However, he says, easing the rule for certain types of trucking might help reduce the impact on the cost and availability of products for consumers at the store.
For example, some drivers turn around within 24 hours of entering Canada, some sleep in sleeper cabs and may not leave their truck, meaning they're less likely to be exposed to or to spread the novel coronavirus. For those kinds of drivers, he says, the government should consider easing the rule.
Weather, labour shortages part of 'perfect storm'
Giancarlo points out, however, that some of the problems on store shelves have little to do with the mandate.
"The weather from last week really did do some damage to certain supply chains, like poultry for example. Anytime there's a real cold spell, our chicken supply changes," he said.
Other products, like packaging materials, have been in shorter supply for months, he says, meaning stores may have a product ready to go but don't have the packaging to put it in.
"That's leading to some delays as well," he said.
Rafael Gomez, an associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, says Canada's food supply issues are the result of a "perfect storm" of factors, including constraints at international ports, turnover in the trucking industry and absences that may stem from poor working conditions or other issues..
"You can't change weather, you can't change the earlier supply chain issues that happened earlier in the year," he said.
"I think the one margin you have to look at obviously are policies. And if mandates are contributing in some measure, maybe small but significant, maybe those have to be revisited," Gomez added.
"I think we need to be very pragmatic at this stage.".
'We shouldn't play politics with food'
Defending the mandate Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 90 per cent of truckers across the country are vaccinated. The Canadian Trucking Alliance and the American Trucking Associations have said up to 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers who make regular trips across the border are likely to be affected by the mandate — roughly 16 per cent.
But while federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said the government is "dividing Canadians" with its mandate and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said the situation is "turning into a crisis," not all Conservatives agree the mandate is to blame.
Speaking to a local radio station in Belleville, Ont. on Tuesday morning, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the biggest thing driving empty shelves is absences due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.
"Number one, we see absenteeism right across North America ... We also see a problem of a lack of truckers, even before the pandemic. We're short thousands of truckers and, you know, just goes to show how important the truckers are when we rely on our goods to get to her or shelves in the stores." Ford said.
For Etobicoke resident Brian Sekandi, who has noticed products at his local grocery store are being restocked more slowly than usual, it's all creating a sense of anxiety and a higher bill at the grocery checkout counter.
"At the end of the day ,there are individuals that are looking to feed their families and ensure that there's not going to be a disruption," he said.
"We shouldn't play politics with food, especially the food supply for Canadians."