Thunder Bay

Canada-U.S. cross-border couple calls on federal government to expand definition of 'immediate family'

When the federal government announced that immediate family members of Canadian citizens would be able to cross the U.S.-Canada border on June 8, Dave Wilson from Sioux Lookout, Ont. and Mary Roy of Grand Rapids, Minn. rejoiced. But their celebration was premature.

The federal government permitted immediate family members of Canadian citizens to enter the country on June 8

Dave Wilson from Sioux Lookout, Ont. is engaged to Mary Roy of Grand Rapids, Minn. They've been separated for months by the closure of the U.S.-Canada border. Here they are pictured at the site where they are building their home on Big Vermilion Lake in northwestern Ontario. (Submitted by Mary Roy)

When the federal government announced that immediate family members of Canadian citizens would be able to cross the U.S.-Canada border on June 8, Dave Wilson from Sioux Lookout, Ont. and Mary Roy of Grand Rapids, Minn. rejoiced.

Finally, after months of not being able to see one another because of the COVID-19 restrictions that shuttered the border, they thought they would be able to spend some of their summer vacation together in northwestern Ontario building their retirement home on Big Vermilion Lake.

The engaged couple, both in their mid-50s and just a few years away from retirement, began preparations for Roy's visit.

Wilson took time off and stocked the fridge with enough food to last them both the two weeks of mandatory quarantine. Roy arranged with her boss to work remotely for the two to three weeks she would spend in Canada and got all her papers in order.

Engaged Canada-U.S. cross-border couple Dave Wilson and Mary Roy are calling on the government to consider expanding the categories of "immediate family members" eligible to cross the international border, after Roy was denied entry to Canada on June 30 while attempting to come up to their shared property in northwestern Ontario. (Submitted by Mary Roy)

On June 30, Roy drove two hours to the Fort Frances border crossing. She pulled up to the window, handed over her papers and was asked to pull of to the side while border agents deliberated whether or not she met the criteria of "immediate family."

"I was in my car for 20 minutes waiting and just the emotions that I ran through were just unbelievable. It was everything from ... thinking I have good reason to go to the border. I own property. I pay Canadian taxes. I'm engaged to a Canadian. And then in the next minute I was saying 'they'll never let me through.' I was crying. I was praying. It was a horrible 20 minutes," said Roy.

Her entry was denied.

Many cross-border couples kept apart by border restrictions

This is a story that has been heard often in the nation since the world's longest international land border closed to non-essential travel on March 21.

Statistics provided by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) show that almost 13,000 foreign nationals were denied entry into Canada from the U.S. between March 22 and July 22 because their purpose of travel was deemed to be discretionary. Of those numbers, more than 5,000 were U.S. citizens turned back because the purpose of their trip was deemed to be for tourism, recreation or non-essential travel, and a further 5,400 people were turned back for "other reasons."

In a written statement from the CBSA, spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said, "the Government of Canada 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 respective public health controls."

One of those ways to support family unity is to allow foreign nationals who are an immediate family member of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident to enter Canada for non-discretionary purposes for a period of 15 or more days if they are asymptomatic and have no reason to suspect COVID-19 infection.

We're not 20-years old. We're in our fifties and we're committed. She's retiring and moving up to Canada and we're getting married next year.- Dave Wilson, emergency room nurse in Sioux Lookout, Ont.

The problem that many long-term cross-border couples have is with the definition of who counts as immediate family. That includes spouses or common-law partners, dependent children, parents, or guardians or "tutors."

Wilson said they both thought she would be able to cross the border.

"We looked at that criteria online on the website and we just assumed you get to the border, you prove that you've got a [Canadian] resident here and you're engaged. We're building this property, we had copies of everything, the building permit, we had everything in place and the only reason she did not get across is because they said she was not in a common-law relationship."

The federal government's website defines common-law as "a person who has been living with another person in a conjugal relationship for at least one year."

Wilson added, "We're not 20-years old. We're in our fifties and we're committed. She's retiring and moving up to Canada and we're getting married next year. I think they should have just went one step further and offered this cross border into Canada with people that are engaged."

The couple said they understand and agree with the need to close the U.S.-Canada border to ensure the health and safety of Canadians. But they are now asking the federal government to expand the categories of who is eligible to cross the border.

And they aren't the only ones.

There's a need to ease the border restrictions, say experts

Several experts are suggesting the border won't open until the new year. That includes the director of  the University of Windsor's Cross-Border Institute, Bill Anderson.

Anderson said he doesn't foresee a return to a "normal border re-opening," like what existed prior to the pandemic. But he added the government needs to start working with American officials to consider options to slowly ease restrictions to address personal and professional concerns.

"The whole question of what's essential from a personal perspective is tough. So I think what will have to happen is that there's going to be some sort of a process — it may be phased in or maybe would be good to make use of testing — to expand the range of people that are considered 'essential' or the types of trips that are permissible."

Anderson added discussions about how to ease border restrictions should be done in a similar fashion to discussions about re-opening schools, with safety precautions, infection management, and benchmarks negotiated between governments.

Until that happens, Wilson and Roy are stuck in limbo as they wait to see one another again and build their future together.

Roy said, "I don't know how long I'll have to wait. Like ... yes, we may not be married at this point and yes, we're not cohabitating. But that is our long-term goal. That's what we are planning for. We are each other's future."

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