Canada mulls new travel restrictions to close land border loophole: Transport minister
Airlines cancel flights to sun destinations as feds bring in mandatory COVID tests for inbound passengers
The Canadian government is considering new travel restrictions to stop people whose sun destination flights were cancelled from crossing the U.S. land border.
"It's worth noting that the overwhelming majority of land border-crossers are essential travellers like truckers and rail workers. Having said that, we are in the middle of this discussion [about] adding potentially more measures there," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told As It Happens host Carol Off.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new measures to curb non-essential international travel during the pandemic.
Major Canadian airlines shut down their Mexican and Caribbean routes on Sunday, as part of an agreement with the government. As of Wednesday, all inbound flights will land in either Montreal, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver. After that, all incoming passengers will be tested for COVID-19, and will have to wait up to three days at a government-approved hotel for their results, on their own dime.
Alghabra spoke to Off about the latest measures, and what else may be in the works. Here is part of their conversation.
Mr. Alghabra, if you don't want people travelling unnecessarily, why not just come right out and ban foreign travel?
We actually, last year, advised Canadians to avoid nonessential travel. We banned all foreigners from entering Canada. We required 14-day quarantine. And earlier this year, we've also added another measure that requires all travellers to get tested for COVID before boarding a plane on the way to Canada.
And what we announced on Friday were additional layers, all guided by public health advice to promote public health, to protect against the spread of COVID, particularly with the rising number of variants around the world.
Right now, the Globe and Mail had an editorial about this [saying] that this is what Canada has been doing all along — it introduces important restrictions that would be quite useful, but does them long after they should be in place. So why have you taken so long to do this?
As I stated earlier, we've actually implemented some of the strictest measures from last year, from last March.
Well, we're seeing what Australia and New Zealand [are] doing. I think that's what they're comparing with — Canada is a laggard when you compare to those countries and how successful those travel restrictions have been.
Yeah, look, I realize that. And Australia and New Zealand have their own unique set of circumstances, including the fact that they are geographically an island. We have our own circumstances. And, in fact, if you see other countries around the world are following our lead, implementing similar measures that we've implemented months ago.
So I understand and it's normal and healthy to always be pushing and questioning. We are guided by public health advice. We are guided by the developments. And we're grappling to make sure that we [are] constantly monitoring the ... safety of Canadians.
Also, the flights have been cancelled to the Caribbean, to Mexico. Obviously, you're trying to stop those vacations from happening before the spring breaks begin. But what do you say to people who are going to those places for other reasons ... Canadians who need to [travel] to take care of loved ones or for emergencies?
Look, we've been asking Canadians for the last few months to sacrifice, and Canadians have stepped up. Canadians understand that we're going through a pandemic that happens once in a century and that we are all having to make sacrifices. We've asked Canadians to avoid non-essential travel, and we reached a voluntary agreement with the airlines to suspend traffic to destinations where a majority of Canadians tend to go when they are going on vacation, especially during spring break and March break.
Now, having said that, I realize there are the Canadians who are having to sacrifice and make adjustments because of these measures. And I regret that. I don't take any joy in imposing such measures. But as I said, we are guided by public health advice. We are protecting the health and safety of Canadians. And I think Canadians, on the whole, understand the necessity for these measures.
You mentioned the variants. How concerned is the government with the news, with the research that we're finding now about these new variants and how deadly they are?
We're obviously very concerned about these variants, and Public Health and [chief public health officer] Dr. Theresa Tam, and the health experts are monitoring the spread of this very, very closely.
This is precisely why we've added these new measures — not only to prevent against the spread of these variants, but also to send a strong message to Canadians who are thinking about travelling for vacation or non-essential travel to delay that for now.
I understand [Public Safety Minister] Bill Blair is talking to [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden's administration about potential further measures. What else should we be prepared for? What else are you considering?
The new Biden administration has recently implemented new measures, by the way, following some of the measures that we had already in place, and now we are in discussions with them about potentially new measures that we can reciprocate. I'm not able to prejudge the outcome of that discussion, but I can tell you that both our administration and their administration are taking the new health measures very seriously and we're examining all options.
We're hearing stories — I mean, it's all anecdotal — but stories of people, Canadians, who fly to U.S. border cities, rent cars, drive into Canada. It seems to be … the best way to beat the system. So have you flagged the land border as an issue?
Let me be very clear again. We're calling on all Canadians to cancel all non-essential travel, whether it's through land, whether it's through air. It is necessary for the well-being of our country.
I take your point about the land borders, and that is currently being examined and discussed with our friends in the U.S. And it's worth noting that the overwhelming majority of land border-crossers are essential travellers like truckers and rail workers. Having said that, we are in the middle of this discussion [about] adding potentially more measures there.
But if people consider that a way to sort of beat the system, then clearly there are a lot of people who don't think that these restrictions are for them. So just urging them to be good citizens may not be enough. What might you do to prevent those people from taking advantage of loopholes?
You're right, and that's why we are currently examining other measures that will be hopefully announced soon.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.