Engaged Canadian-American couples kept apart despite new exemption for cross-border families

Canada is letting married and common-law couples cross the Canada-U.S. border to reunite, but the rules have left many long-term partners separated, unaware when they will see each other again.

Only Canada-U.S. couples who are married, common-law included

Saralyn Russell will head to North Dakota to get married so her partner is eligible to come to Canada under COVID-19 restrictions. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Saralyn Russell's wedding is just a few days away — but it won't be how she planned it.

Instead of celebrating in Winnipeg with friends and family, she's packing a suitcase and flying to the United States, with a mask and face shield in hand.

"We are only getting married this Monday because the government will not let her in [to Canada] if we don't do this," she said.

Russell's fiancée, Rachael, lives in Grand Forks, N.D.

Though they're less than a three-hour drive apart, the two have been separated since March because of the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We matched on a dating app, because we lived so close together," Russell said. "We didn't realize we were both from different countries."

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

While Canadians can't cross the land border into the U.S., most can still fly into the country.

And as of June 8, Canada started to grant exceptions allowing immediate family members to cross the border into this country to be reunited. But for couples, it only applies to those who are married or common-law.

"They're basically saying if we don't get married, we don't consider your partner to be essential," Russell said.

WATCH | Cross-border couple getting married to be together:

Cross-border couple getting married to be together

3 years ago
Duration 2:27
Saralyn Russell and her fiance aren't allowed to cross the border unless they're married, so they're tying the knot on Monday in Grand Forks.

She said the hardest part has been not knowing when they'll see each other again.

This week, the federal government announced the border will remain closed until at least July 21.

"We just broke down crying," Russell said.

"Every time the border closure gets near the end, we all get really excited and make plans. Then a couple days before, it's always been extended another 30 days."

'We were forgotten'

Lyndsay Sanders and her fiancé, AJ Haefele, haven't seen each other since January.

"To see we were forgotten [in the new rules] … it hurts," Sanders said.

"You just want to be with your person, especially when there's this pandemic," she said. "It's terrifying, and you don't know when it's going to end."

Sanders lives in Winnipeg, while Haefele is in Colorado. 

Sanders said the requirement to be a common-law couple is especially frustrating. It's hard for any international long-distance couple to live together, since they're usually limited in how long they can stay in their partner's country. 

Before COVID-19, Sanders was applying for a visa to live with Haefele in the United States. Now that's on hold.

Sanders wants the government to use the broader definition of conjugal partners, a designation for couples who aren't able to live together as common-law because of immigration barriers.

"Our entire lives are completely in limbo right now. It's so demoralizing."

Lyndsay Sanders and her fiancé, AJ Haefele, don't know when they'll see each other again. They want the Canadian government to broaden its allowance for families separated by the border restrictions. (Submitted by Lyndsay Sanders)

Conservative member of Parliament Raquel Dancho has been pushing the federal Liberal government to include long-term and committed couples as part of the border exception.

Dancho, who represents the Winnipeg riding of Kildonan-St. Paul, said her office has been flooded by emails and calls from couples across the country in the same situation.

"They say, 'We will do literally anything to see each other … show photos from four years ago, a receipt for the engagement ring, reference checks that we are engaged," Dancho said.

A spokesperson for the minister of public safety said the decision to restrict the border has not been taken lightly, and is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"We are working with the best public health evidence available, and will continue to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe," Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Bill Blair, wrote.

'This can't go on any longer'

As for Saralyn Russell and her fiancée, the moment they found out they were not included in the exemption, they made a quick decision.

"As soon as we knew spouses could come, we were like, 'We need to make you my spouse. This can't go on any longer.'"

Neither can cross the border by road, but as a Canadian, Russell can fly into the United States if she self-isolates when she returns.

This weekend, Russell will fly to Minneapolis, and then drive to Grand Forks. She and Rachael will get married on Monday with two witnesses they've hired.

Saralyn Russell and her fiancée, Rachael, are getting married together this week so that Rachael can enter Canada. (Submitted by Saralyn Russell)

"It certainly wasn't going to be like this, under all this pressure. My parents can't come, and her parents can't come," she said.

"It's kind of become more of a legal transaction."

The wedding is bittersweet — the couple will have four days together before Russell has to go back to Canada, not knowing when they'll see each other again. 


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.