Electronic travel authorization program trips up permanent residents

The federal government's electronic travel authorization (eTA) program continues to sow confusion among air travellers to Canada — even for travellers whose permanent resident status ought to exempt them from the pre-screening program.

Lack of information about new travel requirements has compounded the problem, immigration lawyer says

The electronic travel authorization program has complicated travel for some dual citizens who don't have Canadian passports, among others. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal government's electronic travel authorization (eTA) program continues to sow confusion among air travellers to Canada — even for those whose permanent resident status here ought to exempt them from the pre-screening program.

Klim Barabash learned that the hard way over the holidays, when his parents tried to travel to Toronto's Pearson airport from Vienna. The couple, who had documents confirming their status as Canadian permanent residents, were prevented from boarding their flight because they hadn't filled out an eTA form.

They didn't fill out the form because the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website said they didn't need to. The website clearly states that travellers "do not need an eTA if you are a permanent resident of Canada."

Barabash said he contacted Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to clarify.
Klim Barabash said it cost him $2,500 to rebook his parents' flight to Canada after they were prevented from boarding because they lacked an electronic travel authorization. (CBC)

"They told me they don't know what is on the [IRCC] website," said Barabash. "Their policy is that eTA is required."

Barabash said he had to spend $2,500 on rebooking his parents' flight to Canada, and wants compensation.

"It bothers me that we tried to follow all the rules — and we did follow all the rules — and still [this] happened," he said.

CBC Toronto contacted CBSA about the incident and were instead referred to IRCC, which offered no details about the Barabash case but confirmed that the eTA information on the IRCC website is accurate. 

"Permanent residents of Canada are not eligible to apply for an eTA, and, as usual, must show their permanent resident card or a permanent resident travel document when travelling to Canada," an IRCC spokeswoman said in an email."

eTA trips up travellers

The eTA program, which took effect this fall after a six-month grace period, applies to foreigners who don't usually need a visa to enter Canada, like British or French nationals. Those travellers must pay $7 to apply for the eTA online before their flight. (Americans, however, are exempt.)

So far, the program has made national headlines for tripping up all kinds of travellers, including an Irish grandmother who wanted to visit her family in Winnipeg and an English comedian who missed his gig in Toronto.

The primary reason for the eTA program's problems is its lack of publicity, said immigration lawyer Henry Chang.

Immigration lawyer Henry Chang said the problems with eTA program are largely due to a lack of publicity. (CBC)

"We've got visitors coming from all over the world, they're not necessarily going to know," he said. "If they travelled two years ago to Canada and did not need an eTA, why would they think they need one now?"

Another problem, said Chang, is the "disconnect" between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency, which seem to have different understandings of the rules surrounding eTA.

Complications for dual citizens

Adding to the confusion, Canadian dual citizens are unable to use eTA if they're travelling on a non-Canadian passport.

"They never really considered the fact that a dual national might enter with a foreign passport," said Chang.

"So U.K. citizens, Australian citizens who have been freely travelling with their non-Canadian passports are all of a sudden in a problem situation, because they can't use it without an eTA and they can't get an eTA because they're not foreigners."

Chang notes that because eTA only applies to air travel, dual citizens without a Canadian passport could theoretically avoid the screening program by flying to the U.S. and entering Canada by ground.

Canadian airlines face unhappy passengers

Even though the federal government is responsible for eTA, Canadian airline employees are often the ones left dealing with unhappy passengers.

"It stems from too many people not being aware of the program and trying to deal with it on the spot at their airport," said Massimo Bergamini, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents major Canadian airlines like Air Canada and WestJet.

"It's patently unfair to have the front-line work foisted on the air carriers," he said.

Bergamini said the council wrote a letter about the air industry's troubles with the new program to John McCallum, the federal immigration minister, at the end of November. The federal ministries of Transport, Public Safety, and Small Business and Tourism were also included in the missive, but the NACC has yet to receive a response, Bergamini said.

He said he wants the government to acknowledge the problems with the eTA program and work with the airline industry to solve them.

"You've got to make sure that the people that are affected are aware, and that they can prepare themselves accordingly in the proper conditions — not while they're rushing to try to catch a flight."

With files from Alison Chiasson


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