Why the federal government lets Canadians travel abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic
Canada advises its citizens to stay home but won't stop them from leaving the country
News reports that many snowbirds are heading south this winter — despite the COVID-19 pandemic — have angered some fellow Canadians who feel they shouldn't be allowed to go.
"I think this should be absolutely, 100 per cent stopped," said Barry Tate of Sidney, B.C. "This is a pandemic. This is life and death."
Tate and his wife, Patti Locke-Lewkowich, usually travel to Mexico for two months each winter. But this year, they're staying home because of fears of falling ill with COVID-19 while abroad.
"We feel safer at home in the confines of our little home here," said Locke-Lewkowich.
However, some snowbirds argue they'll be just as safe down south, because they plan to take all necessary COVID-19-related precautions.
The federal government sides with Locke-Lewkowich, advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel abroad during the pandemic.
But it's only an advisory, which means Canadians can still freely leave and return to Canada — a decision that's rooted in Canadians' constitutional rights.
"It's always a balance between allowing people to kind of live their lives and the government attempting to keep health crises under control," said Kerri Froc, a constitutional law expert.
Please don't go
In March, the federal government issued its advisory not to travel abroad in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
After the cold weather hit in the fall and some snowbirds started packing their bags, the government doubled down on its messaging.
Last month, it posted an alert on its website, warning seniors to stay home, because their age makes them more vulnerable to falling seriously ill with COVID-19.
This month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland each made a public plea.
"This is not the time for non-essential travel. It's not a good idea," said Freeland in French at a news conference on Monday.
Watch: Canada's chief public officer talks about COVID-19's future
However, Freeland added that the government won't bar people from leaving. "We will not stop them," she said in French.
As a result, Canadians are free to travel to countries that have open borders, including the United States, which, despite a closed land border, still allows Canadians to fly to the country.
Meanwhile, some other Western nations — such as Australia, France and parts of the United Kingdom — prevent their citizens from travelling abroad for non-essential travel as part of current lockdown measures to help curb infection rates.
"Going on holiday, including abroad, is not a reasonable excuse to leave," the Scottish government — which bars those who live in designated COVID-19 hotspots from travelling abroad — states on its website.
Why doesn't Canada have a travel ban?
During a government committee meeting on Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that the government doesn't have the authority to prevent Canadians from travelling abroad.
"And they have, under the Constitution, a right of return," he said.
Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that Canadians have the right to enter and leave the country.
Froc, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said the government could only limit that right for justifiable reasons and that justifying a travel ban would likely be an uphill battle.
"The court takes a really dim view of absolute bans," she said. "I'm totally in favour of government taking the COVID crisis seriously, making policy to restrict travel, but they have to do so in a way that pays sufficient respect to people's constitutional rights."
What are the risks?
Locke-Lewkowich, who's staying home this winter, said she accepts that Canadians have the right to travel abroad but hopes those who do so won't get government aid if they run into trouble.
"Is Canada going to bail them out with our money?" she said.
When COVID-19 began its global spread in the spring and flights were cancelled, Global Affairs Canada worked with airlines to fly stranded Canadians home.
But now, the government department warns it may not assist Canadian travellers a second time round.
"The government of Canada is not planning any further facilitated flights to repatriate Canadians and may have limited capacity to offer consular services," said Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand in an email.
Chartrand advised that, before leaving the country, Canadians verify if their medical insurance covers COVID-19-related illnesses and a possible extended stay abroad.
Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said if travellers fail to purchase adequate insurance and fall ill, they will be on the hook for the bill — and that includes any medevac charges.
"You aren't getting medevaced home unless you give them a credit card first and they put it through and then it reads approved," said Firestone with Travel Secure in Toronto. "To the best of my knowledge, I don't see it falling back on the taxpayer."
Despite the risks, many snowbirds still plan on heading south; Firestone said that around 40 per cent of his 1,000 snowbird clients have already booked their trips.
"That's with me telling them not to go," said Firestone, who advises his clients not to travel during the pandemic.
"Even as good as you protect yourself, you still can't protect yourself against [the] total unknown."
Canadian travellers returning home must quarantine for 14 days. Freeland said that the rule will continue to be "very strictly enforced."