Families still separated amid U.S. border closure, unable to meet criteria to visit
Cross border lives and relationships put on hold during COVID-19 pandemic
Scott Kitchen worries he will never see his ailing 73-year-old mother again.
The Portland, Maine, resident lives just a few hours drive from her home in St. Stephen, N.B. But his last visit was months ago, shortly after the U.S. border closed to non-essential travel under COVID-19 restrictions.
"Whether I was in Maine or New Brunswick, it didn't really feel like I was in a different country until now," he said.
The federal government announced last week a relaxation of travel restrictions for immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents — under specific criteria.
Despite those changes, many New Brunswickers with relationships and family across the U.S. border say they remain stranded, unable to meet the criteria. They include engaged couples who do not meet the legal definition of common-law spouses, and children and parents unable to spend weeks self-isolating on both sides of the border.
Kitchen grew up in New Brunswick and holds dual Canadian and U.S. citizenship, which has permitted him to enter Canada since the border first closed to non-essential travel. He also owns a weekend home in the province.
However, the guidelines require a 15-day minimum stay for family members, with 14 days in quarantine. That's an obstacle for people like Kitchen, who is an essential health-care worker and unable to take the time off.
"I just think there's no empathy coming from a lot of people in charge," he said. "Because if they're not personally affected by it, it's easy to just kind of wave it off with a hand saying, 'Well, we're dealing with it'."
Provincial borders under different rules
Since the U.S. land border closed to non-essential travel in mid-March, hundreds have joined Facebook groups to share their frustration and attempt to find solutions.
In border communities like St. Stephen and Calais, Maine, once-routine daily or weekly trips to visit family are nearly impossible.
On top of the federal restrictions, the New Brunswick government is limiting access to the province.
Visiting family is considered non-essential travel, according to a spokesperson for the New Brunswick Department of Health. Canadian residents will be allowed to visit family in the next step of the yellow recovery phase.
Kitchen's sister, also a Canadian citizen, lives 15 minutes away from St. Stephen in Maine. She continued after the border shutdown to visit every few weeks to bring supplies to their mother, Sharon. But after several trips, border officials told her she would be required to self-isolate in the future.
Their mother is a widow, lives alone and has only had contact with her home care worker in recent weeks. In mid-April, she experienced shortness of breath while on the phone and blacked out. Her daughter was unable to cross the border to check in on her.
"You can hear them gasping for air and then all of a sudden all you get is the busy signal when you try to call and you just feel helpless," Kitchen said.
It took a few hours before her children knew she was OK.
"As a family member you feel responsible for your loved ones and your parents."
Cross-border relationships put on pause
Canadian Alison Frise has been separated from her American fiancé, Jeffrey Ford, since the border closed in March.
Frise, who lives in Riverview, met Ford through mutual friends during a trip to Las Vegas in 2015. They have been engaged for two years and last saw each other in February.
Being in a cross-border relationship meant celebrating the holidays of both countries, including American Thanksgiving and Canada Day — until now.
When the family exemption was announced, the couple were anticipating being able to finally reunite.
"I was getting emails and texts from everybody saying, 'Oh, look, the announcement came, the announcement came in,' so I cried because I was so excited," Frise said.
But, the Canada Border Services Agency told the couple they do not qualify for the family exemption. Since the couple have not been living together continuously for at least one year, they are not considered common-law spouses.
The border travel exemption considers immediate family to include a spouse or common-law partner, dependent child, parent or step-parent, or guardian of a child.
A Canada Border Services spokesperson confirmed to CBC News that being engaged alone does not fall under the category of a family member for crossing the border.
"It's just very disheartening," Ford said.
The couple hope to eventually spend summers in New Brunswick and winters in Las Vegas, but those plans are on hold.
Stranded with no end in sight
Grand Manan resident Carly Fleet has been separated from her partner, Sean Bodden, for more than 100 days. They divide their time between homes in New Brunswick and Grenada.
Bodden, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, works in project management for a ship repairs company, while Fleet owns a motel and works as a kayak guide.
"It's really frustrating, especially not knowing if it's going to be a couple weeks, is it going to be months," Fleet said.
With nearly all flights grounded, Bodden is waiting in Grenada trying to find a way to reunite in another country. Canadian border officials initially told them in early June he would not be permitted to enter.
They have not been able to live continuously after being separated by borders for work and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The couple got engaged in February and hoped to get married in August.
Fleet said she would like to see clear standards from border officials and a family exemption policy that includes more situations.
"There's very, very little risk, if any at all, to public safety. We just want to reunite and be together and able to support each other through all of this."