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Why some travellers get permission to cross the Canada-U.S. border and others don't

Although Canada and the U.S. mutually agreed to close their shared border to non-essential travel, they each crafted their own policies. That has sparked some confusion and frustration, as the rules vary — depending on which country you're entering.

Snowbirds can fly to U.S., but Americans who own property in Canada can't enter

Canada bars Americans from entering for non-essential travel by all modes of transportation, but the United States allows travellers to enter its country by plane. (Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press)

Kim Zavesky is desperate to return to her home in Golden, B.C.

After retiring last year, she and her husband — both Americans — sold their house in Chandler, Ariz., and moved most of their belongings to their second home in Golden, in southeastern British Columbia.

The plan was to rent a place in the United States for the first part of the year and spend the rest of the year in Golden. But then the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential traffic in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, blocking the couple from accessing their Canadian property.

"All my stuff is there, all my documents except for my passport," Zavesky said. "It's like not being able to go home."

Adding to her frustration is the fact that, despite the border closure, Canadians can still fly to the U.S for leisure travel. That includes snowbirds who are currently flocking to the Sunbelt states.

"The unfairness of it really bothers me," Zavesky said. "Whatever the rules are, I just feel like it should be the same."

Americans Kim Zavesky and her husband, Paul, are prohibited from entering Canada to visit their home in Golden, B.C., under policies the federal government put in place after the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential traffic in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Kim Zavesky)

Although Canada and the U.S. agreed to close their shared border to non-essential travel during the pandemic, they each crafted their own policies. That has sparked some confusion and frustration because the rules vary — depending on which border you're crossing.

Political scientist Don Abelson said the different rules between the two countries isn't surprising.

"You're still dealing with two sovereign countries who have jurisdiction over their own border, and they certainly have jurisdiction and responsibility for developing their own policies," said Abelson, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. 

Snowbirds OK to fly south

The Canada-U.S. land border is set to stay closed until Dec. 21, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implied on Tuesday that the date could be extended.

"The [COVID-19] situation in the United States continues to be extremely serious," he said on CBC Radio's The Current.

Since the start of the border closure, the Canadian government has barred Americans from entering for non-essential travel by all modes of transport.

But while the U.S. has barred Canadian travellers from crossing by land, it still allows them to fly into the country. The U.S. has declined to tell CBC News why it made this decision, but in general, its air travel restrictions are less stringent than Canada's.

Despite soaring COVID-19 infections in the U.S., a number of Canadians have taken advantage of the flying exemption, including snowbirds determined to escape the Canadian winter.

"No way in hell we're staying here," said Claudine Durand of Lachine, Que.

Snowbirds Claudine Durand and her husband, Yvon Laramée, of Lachine, Que., travel to Florida each winter for two months. Durand says they're still going this year, despite the pandemic. (Submitted by Claudine Durand)

If the land border is still closed when Durand and her husband head to Florida in late January, they plan to use a new service offered by Transport KMC. The Quebec company flies snowbirds — and transports their vehicles — across the Quebec-New York border.

"Basically, it solves our problem because we want to take our RV down," Durand said, adding that she plans to take all COVID-19 safety precautions while in Florida.

The federal government advises Canadians not to travel abroad for non-essential travel during the pandemic but says it can't prevent people from leaving.

Those who do must quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Canada.

Family exemptions

Canada and the U.S. also have different rules for family member exemptions.

Following protests from families separated by the border shutdown, the Canadian government loosened its travel restrictions in June to allow Americans with certain immediate family in Canada to enter the country for any reason by both land and air.

In October, the government further widened the exemptions to include additional family members, as well as couples who've been together for at least a year.

Conversely, the U.S. offers no exemptions for Canadians crossing into the country by land to visit family, unless they're tending to a sick relative.

U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders suggests the U.S. hasn't bothered to loosen the restrictions as the pandemic drags on because separated family members can still fly to the country.

"There's a huge alternative," said Saunders, who's based in Blaine, Wash. "There's no restrictions on flying."

WATCH | Some Canadians decide to spend winter in U.S. amid COVID-19:

Some snowbirds headed south despite pandemic

The National

3 months agoVideo
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The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t stopping some Canadian snowbirds from heading to the U.S. this winter, but they’re not all willing to take the risk for warmer weather. 2:07

One affected group that has found no way around the federal government's travel restrictions are Americans who own property in Canada. Some of them argue they, too, should get an exemption to enter the country.

"I pay [property] taxes. I would more than live by the rules," said Zavesky, who points out she has a place where she can quarantine for 14 days — her home in Golden, B.C.

Mark Brosch of Atlanta owns a cottage in Muskoka Lakes, Ont. He said he believes he should be allowed to enter Canada so he can check on a property that has sat vacant for 10 months.

"I get across the border and I go to my cottage and quarantine for 14 days," he said. "I am less of a risk to the public in Muskoka than the people that travel back and forth from Toronto every weekend."

Mark and Sandra Brosch of Atlanta are shown at their cottage in Muskoka Lakes, Ont., during a previous summer. This year, the American couple can't visit their property due to the border shutdown. (Submitted by Mark Brosch)

When asked about property owners, the Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC News in an email that U.S. visitors will be allowed to re-enter Canada when it's deemed safe to do so.

"Travel into Canada for tourism and recreation purposes is currently prohibited, regardless of the ability of the traveller to quarantine for the full 14 days upon arrival," spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said. 

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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