Binational couples separated by COVID-19 feel 'abandoned'
Some travel exemptions exist for married couples, but situation more complicated for those who aren't
Two unmarried couples separated by pandemic-related international border restrictions say they're feeling "abandoned" by the federal government and are being judged unfairly on social media.
The restrictions put in place by the Canadian government in the spring make some exceptions for married couples, common-law partners, and children whose parents are in another country.
But couples who are not married have faced additional challenges in trying to reunite.
Olivier Langlois of Gatineau, Que., has a partner who lives in Albany, N.Y. The couple used to drive across the border to visit each other on weekends, but that's changed since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
"Since the border closed in March, we hadn't been able to see each other at all. It took a toll on my mental health, probably on his as well," Langlois told Radio-Canada.
Couple couldn't have predicted a pandemic
Langlois said the couple recently learned that even though the land border is closed, they could still fly to see each other. So he recently took time off work and flew to the U.S. so the couple could reunite for the first time in more than four months.
The trip had financial repercussions, he said: in addition to the time away from his job, flights have become more expensive, meaning a trip that used to cost approximately $60 now sets him back about $750.
Langlois said he and his partner are frustrated by people on social media who've suggested binational couples should simply end their relationships.
"I think it's really important for people to have empathy," he said. "Put yourself in the shoes of the people that are in this situation, and [realize] that it is hard not to be able to see your partner, and not to see the person that's most important to you."
"I've seen a lot on social media: 'It is a choice, you've made the choice to be an international couple,'" Langlois added. "But when we made the choice to be an international couple, there was no pandemic going on."
Aylmer man separated from French partner
That frustration is also being felt by Alexandre St-Jean, who lives in Gatineau's Aylmer district.
St-Jean hoped to see his French partner, Léa Merlier, in August after an eight-month absence. Before the pandemic, the couple saw each other every few months. They met in 2018, fell in love, and lived together while Merlier was on a one-year internship in Canada.
Merlier was supposed to spend the entire month of August in Canada, but since the border is still closed to foreign nationals, the trip is no longer possible.
St-Jean told Radio-Canada in an interview in French the couple feels "abandoned" by the government since Merlier can't get an exception as they're not married.
France is once again allowing Canadians to cross its border, but St-Jean said it's too expensive for him to make the trip.
"We are not an official couple in Canada because we are not married," he said in French.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy, but with COVID, it's even less easy ... We just want to be together, that's all we want."
An immigration lawyer who spoke with Radio-Canada said the situation is complicated, even for married couples who are separated by closed borders.
"Already for couples, married people, in some cases, it is difficult to access Canadian territory," said Stéphane Handfield in a French interview with Radio-Canada.
"If in addition we were to open this possibility to conjugal partners, it becomes even more complicated to assess whether the relationship has existed for two months, six months, 12 months, or three years,"
In an email, the office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness acknowledged that Canadians have made "significant sacrifices" during the pandemic.
"We have been looking at ways to keep families together during this pandemic and reunite others who were separated," the statement said.
"We have brought forward measures that will permit a limited exemption to this restriction for asymptomatic, immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to enter Canada to reunite."
With files from Boris Proulx and Roxane Léouzon