Family battles bureaucratic issues to get grandmother to Winnipeg for Christmas

An Irish grandmother who wants to spend Christmas with her grandkids in Winnipeg is out hundreds of dollars after spending a week struggling with a new federal requirement for foreign travellers.

New electronic travel authorization confusion causes Irish woman to be turned away from 2 flights

Monica Ward lives in Ireland and just wants to spend Christmas with her daughter and grandchildren in Winnipeg. But she's encountered challenges with the new electronic travel authorization requirements for some visitors to Canada. (Submitted/Michelle Ward)

An Irish grandmother who wants to spend Christmas with her grandchildren in Winnipeg is out hundreds of dollars after spending a week struggling with a new federal requirement for foreign travellers. Monica Ward is finally en route from Dublin today.

Her daughter, Michelle Ward, says she's worried her mother isn't the only one to encounter problems getting to Canada for the holidays.

"My mom has been waiting to come here for a week, being turned away at the airport twice. I can't imagine what that's like … It's just been this huge waiting game."

The federal government introduced its electronic travel authorization (ETA) program in March, but only started to enforce it in November following a six-month leniency period. 

Foreign travellers coming from visa-exempt countries — including the U.K., Australia and Japan — require the authorization to enter Canada.

American citizens are exempt, as are people from countries that require a visa.

It costs $7 to apply for the ETA, and the process is supposed to take minutes to complete.

But for Monica, 67, that wasn't the case. The Irish grandmother was turned away from two different flights at the Dublin airport and applied three times before finally being told she needed to fill out paperwork to formally renounce a 30-year-old Canadian residency in order to qualify.

So far, she's paid nearly $1,000 in change fees and additional airfare to swap flights after first trying to leave last Friday, although Air Canada has said it will refund some of that.

Her daughter said the family still doesn't understand exactly what went wrong.

"I've dealt with anxiety in the past and this week has kind of brought it back a bit," Michelle said. "There's been times that I felt, you know, nauseous just with the worry of it."

Bureaucratic nightmare

Michelle, who lives in Winnipeg, said her mother has lived in Ireland most of her life, except for a four-year period in the 1980s when she lived in Canada. For the past decade, Monica has visited Michelle and her grandchildren at least once a year and has never had a problem before.

Monica didn't realize she'd need an ETA this time until she went online to check in to her flight, which was booked with Air Canada and set to leave on Dec. 16 from Dublin.

The airline hadn't advised her of the change when she booked her flight, but did so when she checked in. Monica applied for the ETA with a few hours to go before departure, which should have been plenty of time.

That application didn't go through.

Monica Ward has paid nearly $1,000 in fees and additional airfare to change her flights, although Air Canada has said it will refund some of that. (Tony Avelar/Associated Press)

Monica applied again when she got to the airport, but due to an error in the application it was rejected and she missed her flight.

The family was stuck in limbo for days until that error was addressed and Monica was able to apply for the ETA a third time, and thought she was approved.

She booked another flight for Dec. 21 — paying nearly $500 extra in changing fees and additional airfare. But when she arrived at the airport, she was turned back again.

Although her online application showed she was approved, scans of her passport showed the application was still pending.

Finally, a week after she first attempted to leave, immigration officials told the family Monica would have to fill out paperwork to formally renounce her Canadian residency — despite the fact she hasn't renewed it for around 30 years.

On the road

Monica successfully embarked from Dublin on Friday morning, and is expected to arrive around in Winnipeg around 10 p.m. Friday evening — just in time for her birthday on Christmas Eve.

"I'm just looking forward to having her here," Michelle said Friday morning.

For the family, the past week has been a bureaucratic nightmare of international phone calls and red tape.

"All I've done for the past week is make phone calls, get up at four in the morning, five in the morning, so I could speak to the embassy in Dublin so I could try and get answers for my mom," she said.

She says that on Wednesday, Monica was one of three people turned away because of the ETA on that flight alone.

"I can only imagine how many people are getting turned away on flights all across the world right now," Michelle said.

Monica Ward (left) is set to depart for Canada on Friday. (Submitted/Pam Godfredsen Photography)

A spokeswoman for Citizen and Immigration Canada said some people are encountering problems, mostly because they didn't know about the program before arriving at the airport, she said.

"Not every case can be resolved quickly. There are some situations where travellers will need to reschedule their flight to Canada," the spokeswoman wrote in an email.

"The Government of Canada regrets that some travellers are experiencing travel delays. We have been continuously reminding travellers, including those who need an ETA, to get the appropriate travel document before booking a flight..."

She said the government is monitoring problems around the world and adjusting as needed, as well as trying to help travellers in trouble.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said the airline will refund Monica's family the changing fees for the second rescheduled flight, cutting the family's bill in half to around $500.

He said it would be difficult for the airline to advertise the ETA at the time of booking because not everybody needs one, and it could cause confusion.

"We've been publicizing it as best we can, but it's really the federal government's responsibility to advertise its own program," he said.

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