Members of an Edmonton family looking forward to a holiday reunion this Christmas almost had their hopes dashed by a new passport rule.

Since November, dual citizens who hold Canadian citizenship have been required to show Canadian passports if they want to fly back into the country.

Janet Chotai and her family learned about the new regulation the hard way.

Her brother, Bill Tarver, and his wife, Claire, live in England and months ago booked tickets to travel to Edmonton for the holidays.

The Tarvers' daughter, Emily, lives in Edmonton, and over the years they've visited her many times.

Bill Tarver is a Canadian citizen who spent four years here in the 1970s. But because he holds dual citizenship, he now has to have a valid Canadian passport if he wants to travel back to Canada. 

Last minute scrambling

The Tarvers only heard about the rule change recently, and Chotai said it led to a lot of last-minute scrambling.

"It's completely come out of left field, it's been a minefield to find out what he has to do next," said Chotai.

She said her brother lives 90 minutes from the Canadian consulate in London and has been driving back and forth to get a temporary passport approved before his flight to Canada on Dec. 21. 

Chotai said she visited Liberal MP Amarjeet Sohi's office Monday to ask for help.

In the end, the temporary passport was approved.

The law that almost kept them apart was changed in 2015, when the Canadian government implemented the electronic travel authorization program as a way for immigration officials to screen people coming into Canada. The online application takes minutes and costs $7.

But the program can't be used by Canadian citizens who are dual citizens, meaning they have to acquire Canadian passports if they want to fly into the country.

Catching travellers off guard

Toronto lawyer Henry Chang, an expert on immigration law, said he isn't surprised the rule change is catching travellers off guard. He said some people likely won't even find out until they're about to board their flights, and by then it will be too late.

Chang wrote an article in September outlining the change in rules.

"These individuals used to get by without any prior investigation before they arrived," said Chang. "Now they want you to go through the online application so that they can kind of screen the bad eggs before they get on the plane.

"Unfortunately it [the electronic travel authorization program] wasn't intended to catch Canadian citizens, but the effect is that it does preclude you from coming in without a Canadian passport."  

The change almost ruined the Tarvers' Christmas. But Chotai said her brother has one last visit to make to the Canadian consulate's office to get his paperwork in order for his flight later this month. 

The new policy only relates to air travel, and excludes entry by land or sea.

Another significant exception relates to dual U.S.-Canadian citizens, who do not need Canadian passports to enter the country.  U.S. citizens are currently exempt from having to apply for the electronic travel authorization program and are able to travel back and forth with their American passports.