A Sudbury woman who has a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government said she is frustrated by Laurentian University refusing to let her continue her final year of nursing studies.
Twenty-one-year-old Katherine Bishop of Sudbury said she had been working hard for her medical education. For more than three years, she was pursuing her four-year BScN nursing degree at Laurentian University. From there Bishop's plan was to apply to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine to learn to become a doctor.
Things have changed. First the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 demanded that students everywhere learn to adapt to a new way of learning. And then the arrival of COVID vaccines put a new demand on students.
Back in September of 2021, LU implemented a policy stating that all students must be fully vaccinated. The university said that exemptions would be considered on medical grounds and/or other protected grounds, as per the Ontario Human Rights Code.
As it would turn out, Bishop was refused an exemption by Laurentian University. Two months later she was granted the exemption by the Government of Canada.
Bishop said the university is aware of the federal government's position but as yet has not responded to her.
Bishop said she applied back in September to be exempt from the university policy on religious grounds. Bishop figured she would be okay and expected she would need to submit to regular testing to verify that she was healthy and COVID free. After all, Bishop was a serious student who believed in what she was doing. She was even the president of LUNSA (Laurentian University Nursing Students' Association).
Reality hit one day in October when she was in the university library doing research.
"I was at the library, and I got an email from the vaccine clinics … They just told me that I was denied and that I wasn't allowed to be on campus anymore,” Bishop said. “So I went to my car and I called my mom and I was really upset. I didn't know what to do or what my next steps would be.”
She said efforts to try to find a way that she could continue and graduate, including reaching out to a dean at Laurentian, were fruitless.
“They weren't willing to help me or accommodate me in any way," said Bishop.
On Oct. 4, Bishop was sent an email by Céline Larivière, dean of the Faculty of Education and Health at LU, stating that Bishop was no longer qualified to study at Laurentian because of her vaccination status.
"I am aware that you had applied for an exemption to Laurentian's Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination and that your application was denied," Larivière said in the email.
Bishop was given some options. Larivière wrote that Bishop could continue in nursing with whatever courses are available (just electives, not the required courses), she could take a leave of absence from the program, withdraw from nursing, switch to another program that would be fully online or get the vaccine and return to classes.
Bishop said her tuition for the year has been refunded and she was advised that she is not able to continue her required classes at all, even if she studied remotely. The university said if Bishop decided to get the shot, she would need to do so before Oct. 15. She didn't do that.
Bishop said she can rationalize her decision not to get the vaccine, even though she is studying to become a health-care professional.
"Medical decisions must be made between the doctor and the patient. I strongly believe that doctors should be working in collaboration with their patients, therefore, my recommendations will always be in the best interest of my patients. I will never impose my beliefs onto others and I ask the same in return." said Bishop.
As a nursing student, Bishop said she had worked with COVID patients on student-work placements in health settings. She said she understands the need for precautions but she adds she personally does not believe in getting the vaccine herself for religious reasons.
Sudbury.com asked if she would share her religious views, specifically as they pertain to vaccines.
"I don't really feel comfortable sharing that information. Okay, because I feel like everybody will have a different view. And my beliefs should not need to be justified. Like, they're my personal religious beliefs," Bishop explained.
She added she believes medical decisions are to be made between the physician and the patient.
“As a nursing student I have often been told that the benefits need to outweigh the risks. For me personally getting the vaccine would go against my values and would hinder my spiritual fulfillment, therefore, it would do me more harm than good. Also, I am 21 years old and in perfect health."
Bishop was also asked whether, even though she believes in her action, if she also feels like she might be fighting a losing battle.
"I'm not sure how to answer that exactly, I did what was right for me,” Bishop said. “I chose not to get it because I wanted to respect myself and I felt like going against my own conscious beliefs would be a violation to myself."
The university said it could not comment on any specific vaccine exemption case for confidentiality reasons.
"We are also unable to provide information regarding the number of persons who have applied for a vaccination exemption," said an email from LU Communications Officer Sarah de Blois.
With respect to other questions regarding the university policy on vaccines and exemptions, de Blois referred to a vaccine exemption page on the university website.
One part of the page refers to the Ontario Human Rights Code which provides that every person has the right to equal treatment without discrimination because of creed.
"Please note that with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has been that a singular belief or personal preference against vaccinations and/or masks is not protected on the basis of creed under the Code," said the university webpage.
In the meantime, Bishop said she has not given up entirely in her battle. Along with being a medical student, Bishop is a reservist with the Canadian Armed Forces. In that role, she was also required to be fully vaccinated.
Bishop applied for, and received, an exemption. The exemption document, dated Dec. 17, 2021, states that Bishop must submit to testing if workplace access is required. Also, the document does not expire. The exemption is listed as permanent.
The Canadian Armed Forces website said exemptions are not determined by any specific branch of the Canadian Forces per se. Instead, the exemption, in accordance with the Canadian Human Rights Act will be determined by the Treasury Board Secretariat on a case-by-case basis.
Bishop said it has all been terribly frustrating that the university isn't willing to accept her situation. She said she has forwarded the federal exemption documents to the university and her message was acknowledged.
At this point in the third week of January, she has had no response.
Bishop said she continues to hope that things might change in her favour. She has contacted other nursing schools and other universities hoping that she will be allowed to finish her nursing education and then continue on to medical school.
"I'm trying to be positive. I've learned a lot from it too. So I have grown as a person," said Bishop. She said the one thing she has learned from her medical education so far is that there is not one blanket solution for every problem. She said she is hoping other solutions can be found.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.