As It Happens

Australian couple stranded in Manitoba says they feel abandoned by their government

When Kate and David Jeffries came to Canada in February to visit a sick family member, they never thought they’d still be here 10 months later.

Kate and David Jeffries are 2 of 36,000 Australians who have been unable to return home during the pandemic

Kate and David Jeffries and their 20-month-old son, Mitchell, live in Australia, but have been living in Portage La Prairie, Man., since March because of the pandemic. (Submitted by Kate and David Jeffries)

When Kate and David Jeffries came to Canada in February to visit a sick family member, they never thought they'd still be here 10 months later.

The couple normally lives in Perth, Australia, with their 20-month-old son Mitchell. But they travelled to Portage la Prairie, Man., in February to help out while David's mother underwent treatment for ovarian cancer.

Then the pandemic hit.

"Our options became very restricted very quickly," Kate told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"We initially understood why the government shut down the borders, because there [were] so many unknowns with the virus, and we thought that was sensible. But, yeah, we're still here nine months later, and it does not seem like any learnings have been applied or anything to come up with a plan to get us home."

36,000 Australians abroad 

They're not alone. According to the Australian government, there are at least 36,000 Australians abroad who have been unable to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And not all of them are as fortunate as the Jeffries, Kate noted. 

"We are hearing a lot about people who are in similar situations in other parts of the world, contacting the high commission and things like that, and actually being advised to source homeless shelters or start a GoFundMe be able to afford the exorbitant price of a flight home," she said. 

Mitchell Jeffries pictured with his Australian passport. (Submitted by Kate and David Jeffries )

Australia has not shut its borders to citizens, but it's limiting the number of people who can arrive to about 30 per flight. Individual states are then responsible for managing quarantine facilities for their residents.

For the Jeffries, that means they keep getting bumped from every flight they manage to book.

Their original flight home was scheduled for March 29 — just three days after the Australian government advised its citizens to return home as soon as possible. 

They say they've since had four other flights cancelled, and currently have one booked for Dec. 16.

"We've really been quite shocked by the lack of action on behalf of the federal government of Australia," David said.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would not comment on the Jeffries' case, citing privacy obligations.

A department spokesperson said in an email that it has helped 35,000 Australians return home on more than 500 flights since March, and that it's giving priority to "vulnerable Australians overseas," including families with children. 

A 'silver lining' 

David is Canadian, and a permanent resident in Australia. Kate and their son are Australian citizens, now in Canada on an expired tourist visa they're trying to get renewed.

The family travelled to Canada to see David's mom, who has ovarian cancer. He says she's been through several rounds of chemotherapy and is doing well, and he's grateful to have had this extra time with her. 

"If there's one silver lining in all of this, it is that Mitchell has had an opportunity to spend more time with his grandparents and vice versa," he said.

Dave Jeffries says one benefit of being stuck in Portage la Prairie, Man., for 10 months is that his son, Mitchell, has been able to spend time with his grandmother. (Submitted by Kate and Dave Jeffries )

"If we had planned to come out for a year, we could have settled in and really enjoyed it, but … we did not leave our affairs in Perth in such a way as we could just wander across to the other side of the world and not have to worry about things."

David has been able to work remotely from Canada, and Kate is on maternity leave. But that ends in February.

"I would like to get myself and my husband and my son back to my country where I have my home and my job, my life and my friends and my family and medical cover," she said. 

State-by-state strategy 

On a government website for stranded citizens, Australia says it is "continuing to help Australians return to Australia by arranging additional flights with commercial airlines. The number of government-arranged commercial flights depends on the number of people states and territories can quarantine in a given week."

That downloading of quarantine responsibility onto the states is what irks David the most. He says the country should have organized a national repatriation effort, like Canada did in the early days of the pandemic.

"That's as if Justin Trudeau had said to each individual province in Canada, 'You are responsible for getting … Canadians home in the next three months.' And we all know that didn't happen. We all know that the Canadian government did step up," he said.

"[Australian Prime Minister] Scott Morrison did not do that. He pointed at the states and said, 'It's all your fault.'"

If the family manages to get on their Dec. 16 flight home, they'll be spending the holidays in quarantine. Most states have set up hotels for residents arriving from overseas — though capacity is limited. 

Kate, used to Australia's sunny climes, is now experiencing her first Manitoba winter. 

"I've been told the weather has been very favourable and it's about to get a whole lot worse, which is another reason I'm hoping to get on that plane in December," she said. 

"It will either be a Christmas here in the snow, or it'll be a Christmas in hotel quarantine for us."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

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