Nova Scotia

Border blues: Families wanting to be reunited seek more flexibility in exception process

Families who want to be reunited across Nova Scotia's provincial border are speaking out about their confusion and frustration with the process to request a compassionate exception for travel. 

Some say they hope the policy will be re-examined or broadened quickly

Families separated by the Nova Scotia border say they are looking for more flexibility on compassionate travel exceptions. (John Morris/Reuters)

Families who want to be reunited across Nova Scotia's borders are speaking out about their confusion and frustration with the process to request a compassionate exception for travel. 

During the first phase of Nova Scotia's reopening plan, travel deemed non-essential is not available to most people. 

Jessica Bradley and her husband live in Dartmouth and are expecting their first child on June 16th. Since they have no family members in Nova Scotia they hoped that Bradley's mother, who lives in Charlottetown, P.E.I., would be able to travel to Halifax as a support person. 

They applied for a compassionate exception on June 1, but were told it could only be approved if Bradley submitted a doctor's note showing her pregnancy was a high health risk and she required 24/7 support. 

"It was pretty disheartening," Bradley said. "While I could understand maybe these rules at the beginning of the third wave when things were quite bad, I was having a very difficult time with the justification that I had to prove that I had a traumatic pregnancy in order to justify or merit support." 

Bradley said her husband has to return to work soon after the birth, but her mother has received both her vaccinations and has a plan to self-isolate. Bradley is dismayed that she may have to cope on her own for much of the day in the weeks after her baby is born.

Restrictions for entering Nova Scotia are expected to be slightly relaxed in the second phase of reopening, but people will still have to apply for compassionate exceptions. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government's COVID-19 website lists two criteria for compassionate exception: an end-of-life visit or for writing an exam that cannot be rescheduled or taken virtually. 

"I would hope that the compassionate care exceptions would be updated sooner than later to reflect our current reality, and that there would be some consideration given to, you know, this is not typical leisure travel. This is travel for really important support purposes," she said.  

'I couldn't understand how I posed a risk'

On June 2, three days after his father died of complications from COVID-19, Steven MacDonald applied for a compassionate exception to come home to Nova Scotia for the funeral. 

MacDonald, who lives in Albany, N.Y., said he was denied, but didn't stop trying. He notified provincial officials that he is fully vaccinated and laid out the details of his travel plans, including his intent to self-isolate at a cottage, where friends and family would drop off food.

"I just — I couldn't understand how I posed a risk … It just seemed highly unreasonable given the circumstances."

MacDonald said government officials advised him to reapply in mid-June, when the province is expected to move into Phase 2 of the reopening plan. 

Steven MacDonald, left, with his father, John MacDonald, who died at the end of May. MacDonald wants to travel to Nova Scotia from upstate New York for his father's funeral. (Contributed by Steven MacDonald)

In the second stage, people from outside Nova Scotia will be able to request a compassionate exception to enter for a funeral service for an immediate family member. 

Seasonal property owners and people who are moving to Nova Scotia will also be able to apply to enter if they self-isolate for 14 days.

If Nova Scotia enters Phase 2 on the target date of June 16, that would leave five days for MacDonald to ask, again, for a compassionate exception and, if approved, travel from upstate New York to New Glasgow for the service. He would not have time to self-isolate.

"There doesn't seem to be any common sense around it, and obviously no compassion," MacDonald said.

Officials flip-flop

In addition to the compassionate exception, Nova Scotia also has protocols to allow parents and children to cross the border for custody reasons and visitation.

Edward Ducharme, who lives in Maine and Massachusetts, said he's previously been granted entry into Nova Scotia based on those rules, so he expected them to apply again when he planned his trip to Nova Scotia this month.

Ducharme's 12-year-old son lives primarily with his mother in Enfield, N.S., where Ducharme last visited in January.

"I know things got tighter after January, but it seems a little ridiculous that — how many months has it been since I've seen my child? And they won't let me come in to, you know, give the kid some support."

Ducharme was allowed to drive across the international border into New Brunswick, but he said he was denied entry into Nova Scotia Friday night.

There has been a checkpoint at the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border for much of the pandemic. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

After spending the night at a hotel in Sackville, N.B., and contacting the provincial government, officials reversed the decision that was made at the border and allowed Ducharme to enter Nova Scotia.

Ducharme said he thinks the flip-flop was a symptom of the rules being unclear to the point that even those working at the border don't always understand when to grant entry.

Province says it grants exceptions on case-by-case basis

In an email, spokesperson Heather Fairbairn for the Department of Health and Wellness wrote: "There's no question, COVID-19 and the necessary public health measures have been difficult. This is particularly true for those who may be separated from their loved ones and our hearts go out to them during these challenging times." 

The statement explained compassionate exceptions are considered on a case-by-case basis, and the province is working on a system to validate proof of vaccination for travellers and testing to ease border restrictions. 

"It is also important to note, that while being vaccinated provides an extra measure of protection, it does not preclude someone from contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to others," the statement said, adding the department will keep reviewing and updating the entry requirements.