Star-crossed lovers who can't cross border ponder marriage

Jessica Stopes is Canadian. Ryan Howard is American. Because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, the unwed couple can't cross the Canada-U.S. border to see each other. And while they may be lonely, they're far from alone.

Travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border keeping unwed couples apart during the pandemic

Happier times: Jessica Stopes, right, says she's considering marrying her American boyfriend Ryan Howard, left, so they can travel across the Canada-U.S. border to see each other once Howard returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. (Supplied)

An Ottawa woman says she's considering marrying her American boyfriend just so they can travel freely across the Canada-U.S. border to see each other.

Canada currently prohibits foreigners from entering the country for non-essential travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

While the federal government loosened the rules on June 8 to allow foreigners to visit immediate family such as spouses, common-law partners and dependent children, neither unmarried couples nor adult children qualify for the exemption.

"I can't believe that because of government regulations I'm going to have to get married," said Jessica Stopes, 35. "My hand is being forced on this topic, and not only do I have to do it, but I've got to disrespect my entire family in the process [because] they don't get to be part of it."

Stopes's partner Ryan Howard, 32, is a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Fort Drum, just outside Watertown, N.Y., close to the Canada-U.S. border crossing 

'My hand is being forced on this topic,' Stopes said. (Supplied)

He was deployed to Afghanistan in February and is expected to return in October. However, Stopes said if he arrives home sooner — or the travel restrictions continue into the fall — she's contemplating marrying him so they can resume their regular two-hour trips to see one another.

"When a soldier deploys, you watch them get on a bus and the bus takes them to an airfield," she said. "The thing that gets me through each day [is] always being back in that parking lot and watching the bus pull up and getting to be there when he gets off of it."

Stopes said she has never wanted to get married, but will have no choice if the travel restrictions aren't lifted.

"I think the border should just be open, but understanding other people's fears and other people's concerns there should, at the very least, [be] an easement for personal relationships, which is very different than Americans coming over just to holiday and vacation," she said.

'I'm just a guy who wants to be with his partner'

David Poon, 34, founded the organization Advocacy for Family Reunification at the Canadian Border with his Irish partner Alexandria Aquino, 24, to pressure the federal government to allow unmarried, committed couples and adult children to be reunited.

"What we're having here is ... a pedantic distinction between a married couple and a committed couple," said the Regina-based physician.

Does a marriage certificate lower your chance of [getting] COVID?​​​​- David Poon, Advocacy for Family Reunification at the Canadian Border

"I'm just a guy who wants to be with his partner," he said. "Does a marriage certificate lower your chance of [getting] COVID?"

A petition launched by Poon's group has nearly 3,500 signatures.

'We are simply asking to be together'

On June 30, the federal government extended its sweeping travel ban that bars entry to all visitors who are not Canadian citizens, permanent residents or people entering from the U.S. for "essential" reasons, until July 31.

The previous order-in-council was set to expire at 11:59 p.m. ET Tuesday, and Poon said the last-minute extension caught many couples off guard.

David Poon of Regina, left, and his Irish partner Alexandria Aquino, right, founded the organization Advocacy for Family Reunification at the Canadian Border. (Supplied)

"I feel a lack of willingness to have a discussion, and a certain lack of transparency," he said. "All of us had to scramble. I myself had a plane ticket for my partner [for] July 2.

"We're not advocating for open borders. We are simply asking to be together," Poon said.

In a statement to CBC, the Canada Border Services Agency said these are unprecedented times and it "recognizes the challenges that this pandemic and the temporary border measures have had on families and has been looking at ways to keep families together and support family unity while respecting measured public health controls."

Sarnia–​​​​​​Lambton Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said she's been contacted by thousands of people who've been kept from their loved ones at the border.

"We are advocating for the expansion of the definition of "family" in this instance for the border exemption to include engaged couples, long-term partners, and grandparents," she said in a statement to CBC.

"While the border restrictions remain in place to better ensure the physical health of Canadians, the mental health of these families should not be left to suffer."

With files from Sophie Harris, Ashley Burke and Philip Ling

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