Canada's border clampdown could be adjusted to allow humanitarian exemptions

Canada’s border clampdown on travel could soon be adjusted to allow some additional humanitarian exemptions. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he’s looking to establish a process to weigh certain travel applications on a case-by-case basis.

Public safety minister says he’s looking to establish a process to weigh certain travel applications

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair leaves after the third and final day of a cabinet retreat in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's border clampdown on travel could soon be adjusted to allow some new humanitarian exemptions. 

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told reporters Wednesday that he's looking to establish a process to weigh certain travel applications on a case-by-case basis.

A number of separated couples, extended families and businesses have urged the government to refine its policy, arguing that the current rules are too inflexible and have caused unnecessary disruption and personal distress.

Public opinion polls suggest the travel restrictions are extremely popular with Canadians. The pandemic has killed more than 9,000 people in Canada.

Ottawa apparently is hoping to square those competing pressures by preserving the current safety restrictions in general while allowing some new exceptions.

"We want to make sure that there is a very careful process in place where people can apply for those exemptions," Blair told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Ottawa.

"That [way] they can be properly evaluated, not in a few minutes of conversation at the border but prior to that, so that we can show compassion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the border."

Blair said the government has decisions to make soon: the current land-border deal with the U.S. expires next week and one source said it will be prolonged.

Families split by the border

When asked what sorts of situations he was hoping to address, Blair mentioned extended family, international students, compassionate cases and business requirements.

Canada already loosened the rules in June — but only for immediate family members and only on the condition that they spend a minimum of two weeks in Canada, under quarantine.

A number of people have said the conditions are so narrow and strict, they've kept step-parents from visiting children, kept committed couples apart for the birth of a child, separated a cancer patient from her fiancé and prevented people from seeing a dying loved one.

Blair recently discussed the issue with a number of mayors who expressed support for travel restrictions but offered examples of people hurt by the current rules.

Sarnia, Ont., Mayor Mike Bradley, pictured in his city hall office, was one of the mayors who recently met with Blair to discuss exemptions to the current travel restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border. (Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada)

In an email to CBC News, Mayor Mike Bradley of Sarnia, Ont., mentioned the example of people being unable to visit a dying relative.

He said Blair told the mayors some changes would be coming to allow compassionate exemptions. The mayor said he expects an announcement any day.

Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano declined to reveal details of what Blair told the mayors. He did, however, say the mayors broadly supported some humanitarian exemptions — as long as the changes were minor and mostly maintained the current border restrictions.

One group advocating for separated families says numerous countries have policies in place that allow couples to reunite.

A four-point proposal for the border

The group has proposed a four-point plan that would require travellers to: sign an affidavit (as in Denmark); provide proof they have health insurance; and submit to testing and a quarantine requirement on the Canadian they're visiting if the traveller can't stay in Canada for the current minimum 15 days.

That group, Faces of Advocacy, was founded by a Regina doctor separated from his partner in Ireland. 

Dr. David Edward-Ooi Poon said people too often present the border as an either-or decision when there are better ways to design the policy.

"A false dichotomy is being presented [to Canadians]," he told CBC News.

"It's very popular to keep the border closed. What we're missing is a compassionate exemption process." 

Doctor David Edward-Ooi Poon and Alexandria Aquino are advocating for couples who have been separated by pandemic travel restrictions like they have. (Submitted by David Edward-Ooi Poon)

Online comments expressing support for the closures often point to the disparity in the COVID-19 caseload between Canada and the United States.

The U.S. currently has several dozen times more cases than Canada and, according to the site Worldometer, which tracks COVID-19 cases globally, has a per-capita death count nearly three times higher.

A number of Democrats have pointed to that disparity in their campaign against U.S. President Donald Trump.

"On Friday of [last] week, more than 1,000 Americans died. And in Canada, zero did," Jake Sullivan, a policy adviser to Joe Biden, said on the show Fox News Sunday. "That is the difference in failed leadership in the United States."

The disparity with Canada also came up in a town-hall meeting Trump participated in this week on ABC.

The Canada Border Services Agency said that for the period of Sept. 9 to 15, compared to the same period last year, the number of travellers on flights from the U.S. was down 96 per cent, the number of air travellers from other countries was down 89 per cent and the number of land travellers was down 92 per cent.

Commercial cargo travel fared better: the number of truck drivers entering Canada fell 16 per cent from the previous year.

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