Panic sets in for stranded Canadian travellers as calls grow for repatriation flights

Tens of thousands of Canadians abroad are starting to worry about how they'll get home, as commercial flights cease in many countries with shuttered borders — and they're asking the federal government to do more to help repatriate stranded travellers.

The federal government has said it has no plans to repatriate people stranded by COVID-19 pandemic

Travellers wear masks as they walk through Montreal's Trudeau Airport. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Tens of thousands of Canadians abroad are starting to worry about how they'll get home, as commercial flights cease in many countries with shuttered borders — and they're asking the federal government to do more to help repatriate stranded travellers.

The federal government has said Canadians abroad should come home as soon as possible as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to virtually every country on earth. For an increasing number of people, however, that simply isn't an option.

CBC News has heard from dozens of Canadians facing hardship abroad — most notably in countries like Ecuador, Morocco, Peru and the Philippines, where virtually all movement, including domestic travel, has come to a standstill as governments work to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Many Canadians have said they've had difficulty reaching staff at embassies or consulates charged with helping citizens abroad.

Public health restrictions have made in-person visits all but impossible in some places. Emails to Global Affairs Canada have gone unanswered as bureaucrats deal with a crush of correspondence from an untold number of stranded Canadians.

Sunwing, a leisure charter airline, has suspended southbound flights to holiday destinations to focus on bringing Canadians home. On Tuesday, their aircraft brought over 500 Canadians home from Honduras, Aruba and Panama — countries that have started to close their borders — but many others have been left behind.

The federal government has said it has no plans to repatriate people from other countries, so some travellers inevitably will be stranded for some time.

The federal government said Wednesday it will be working with cell phone providers, like Bell, Rogers and Telus, to send texts to all customers roaming abroad offering further information on consular assistance. Those texts will contain "consular support information and key contact information."

But stranded travellers and their families said Wednesday they're looking for more than text messages from their government.

'Absolutely terrified'

Theresa C. said she is "absolutely terrified" for her son John, a 24-year-old Halifax firefighter now stuck in Peru after travelling there to climb Machu Picchu. On Sunday, President Martin Vizcarra issued a 15-day nationwide state of emergency declaration and immediately ordered the borders closed, with nobody allowed in or out. (Theresa did not want to give her last name for fear of jeopardizing her son's safe passage.)

John and two of his friends have been confined to a hotel room in Arequipa for days, with soldiers on guard outside the building to enforce martial law in a country that has gone to extreme lengths to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The airports there have been shuttered and car traffic is forbidden. She said nothing less than a rescue flight organized by the Canadian government will get her son home.

"It is a very, very dire situation there. Militias in the streets, total lockdown on movements. There's no ongoing source of food for them," Theresa told CBC News.

"It's a harrowing situation. Canadians are being held captive in an environment where they're under martial law. I'm viscerally terrified for their welfare."

Theresa said Canada should follow Israel's example by sending a plane to rescue the many travellers who visit Peru every year. The situation in Peru is different than in other countries, she said, because the military-enforced lockdown was ordered overnight, leaving foreigners no time to get out.

Peter Swanson, a lawyer from Vancouver, is another Canadian stuck in Peru. He's in the tourist town of Cusco in the Peruvian Andes.

He said the federal government's promise to float $5,000 in emergency loans to Canadians stuck overseas simply isn't helpful at this time. He booked an outbound flight for a weekend departure — but it was abruptly cancelled after martial law was declared.

"Surely the answer isn't, 'Here's $5,000, do what you can.' That's not going to solve the problem of closed borders. I don't understand why the Canadian government isn't trying to negotiate something with the various governments to allow repatriation flights. I just don't get it," Swanson told CBC News.

Peter Swanson, a Vancouver-based lawyer, is stranded in Peru after the country closed the border and imposed martial law. (Supplied by Peter Swanson)

"I'm not looking for a free ride. I was obviously planning to pay for my return. I'm simply looking to get a flight home," he said, adding there are "rumours" flying around about rescue flights for U.S. and Canadian citizens but there's been no clear communication from authorities.

He said he's looking to hear from other Canadians in Peru to get a sense of just how many of them are trapped. "It'd be great if we could get together to tell the government to get a plane down here."

'I just want to get home'

Swanson said he's uneasy. "I just want to get home. I have no clue how long I might be here. I don't want to be in a hotel in Peru for a month or two," he said.

The situation is equally troubling in Ecuador, a popular destination in South America where people often go to catch ships to visit the Galapagos Islands.

As of today, Ecuador has prohibited domestic passenger flights and has announced restrictions on virtually all movement throughout the country, with very limited exceptions.

Shane Henry, a superintendent with the Saskatoon Tribal Council, is trying to get his family home to Saskatchewan. His brother Mike, his sister Latasha, his niece Leotina, 5, and nephew Dane, 11, have tried to get out of Ecuador but there just aren't any flights.

Henry received a call from Global Affairs this morning and was told Ottawa has no plans to bring his family home on a repatriation flight. He said his family feels alone and forgotten by an embassy in Quito that has shuttered its doors to citizens in need. He said there are dozens of Canadians in the same situation.

"They're worried. It's obvious, as her brother, that [Latasha is] quite worried about being stuck in a country like Ecuador. There's violent crime, drug trafficking, the geopolitical situation just isn't [the] best. They really have so few options to get out. The government has effectively left them to fend for themselves in Ecuador.," Henry said.

Shane Henry is worried about his family — his brother, his wife, their two kids and a sister — in Ecuador. (Submitted by Shane Henry)

Ying Lu is the head of ophthalmology with the Scarborough Health Network in Toronto. She is stranded in Morocco after airlines abruptly cancelled most flights from Casablanca.

'We are totally stranded'

She's part of a tour group of 38 others Canadians, including many seniors in their 60s and 70s with multiple medical conditions. She said some in the group are running out of medication and one diabetic needs medical care that isn't readily available in a country that is practically shut down.

"We are totally stranded here with everyone trying everything to get out," Lu said.

Miguel Morales is also trying to get his daughter and five other Canadians from McGill University's department of earth and planetary sciences out of Morocco. The group has been in Morocco for two weeks as part of a geology project led by Prof. Anthony Williams-Jones.

He said Global Affairs Canada has offered little information about a way forward and the embassy in the capital city, Rabat, is closed. He said other countries, like Belgium, have already arranged flights out of the region.

"I am disappointed [in] the way Canada has handled the repatriation of citizens abroad. Now is when we citizens want to see our government take the lead and show than in these moments, those who are stranded abroad are not forgotten," Morales told CBC in email.

McGill professor Anthony Williams-Jones and five of his students are stuck in Morocco with no access to consular services. (Supplied by Miguel Morales)

"Nothing has been done so far and that is a sign of weak planning and management from our government in this unusual event."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned Canadians that they may be stranded abroad.

"There are three million Canadians at any given moment around the world, living and working, and I think it is just realistic to know that there are some of them who will not be coming home in the coming weeks," Trudeau told reporters Tuesday from self-isolation.

Canada, U.S. closing border to non-essential traffic: PM

3 years ago
Duration 1:36
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that travellers will no longer be able to cross the border for recreational and tourism purposes.

"We're working with airlines to try and make sure that as many Canadians as possible, as many Canadians as want to, can come home. This is something all Canadians are expecting of their government and we're going to be doing it."

Henry said the prime minister's message was "cryptic" and it's not clear what Ottawa has planned.

"I was waiting to hear how we're going to get these international travellers home but, based on the message I got from the embassy this morning, my family is just going to hunker down for the time being," he said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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