PM says cross-border separation of loved ones 'difficult' but necessary to curb COVID-19
TORONTO -- While he acknowledged the difficulty of an extended period of separation for many Canadians with family in the U.S., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed that travel restrictions at the border must be respected in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In response to a question by CTV News as to whether family reunification is considered an essential reason to cross the Canadian-U.S. border, Trudeau said he knows that people are facing “extremely difficult” situations as a result of the government’s restrictions on travel.
“This is a difficult situation, but every step of the way, we need to do what is necessary right now to keep Canadians safe,” he told reporters in Ottawa on Friday. “That is our priority, to control the spread of COVID-19, to make sure that we get it under control in Canada, and that we prevent importation from other countries.”
The border between Canada and the U.S. has been closed to all non-essential or “discretionary” travel since mid-March in response to the pandemic. Last month, the federal government announced those restrictions would be extended until May 21.
On Wednesday, the prime minister said officials were in talks with U.S. Homeland Security to extend the closure for another month until June 21.
The prolonged border closure has taken a toll on couples and families with members on either side who have been unable to see each other in person for weeks.
Now that it appears likely the restrictions will be extended again, dozens of Canadians have reached out to CTV News to share their stories of separation and how it’s affecting them during these trying times.
Angela Peacock, a Canadian whose husband lives in Kentucky, said she has struggled to find answers from her local politicians, as to why they’re unable to cross the border when they’re immediate family.
“Only my MP responded and he gave me a complete bunch of rubbish that the prime minister says everyone is making sacrifices to keep us all safer and healthier and basically too bad,” she wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Thursday. “There are MANY families out there going through this and the government is just ignoring us.”
Tracy Clouthier, too, said she feels frustrated not being allowed to visit her husband, who lives a short drive away in the U.S.
“It has been devastating to be left without any idea when I will be allowed to see him again, especially in the context of a global crisis and having experienced job loss,” she said.
“As a mental health professional, I am shocked that so much lip service has been given to mental health, while ensuring that many Canadians are not allowed to see their families for months on end.”
According to the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA), U.S. citizens or foreign nationals will only be allowed to enter Canada if they’re asymptomatic, their purpose for entry is not “optional or discretionary,” and they’re able to comply with the requirement to quarantine for 14 days.
Rebecca Purdy, a senior spokesperson for CBSA, said that if the travel of the immediate family member or spouse is deemed optional or discretionary, they will not be allowed to enter Canada.
“A foreign national seeking to enter Canada from the U.S. must be travelling for a non-discretionary purpose in order to be considered for entry. Immediate family members are not exempt from the optional or discretionary requirement,” she wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Friday.
Some examples of reasons for travel that are considered essential, according to the government, include work and study, critical infrastructure support, economic services and supply chains, shopping for essential goods, and for health concerns, immediate medical care, or safety and security reasons.
The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) website states that optional or discretionary reasons for travel include tourism, recreation, or entertainment.
The ultimate decision, however, is up to individual CBSA officers who have the final say on whether a traveller’s reason for crossing the border should be permitted.
For Carly Fleet, who has been separated from her fiance and common-law partner, the government’s rules are incomprehensible.
“Putting family reunification in the non-essential or discretionary category with tourism, recreation and entertainment is appalling,” she said.
“For the sake of benevolence and empathy, and for the well-being of those of us who are suffering under these circumstances, allowances should be made to safely reunite partners and families who are currently separated indefinitely.”
When asked by CTV News if Canadians’ immediate family members in the U.S. should attempt to cross the border into Canada, Trudeau repeated his earlier comments about the importance of curbing the spread of coronavirus.
“We have established rules around travelling across borders and international travel. They need to be respected because we have to keep Canadians safe. We have to control the spread, and we will be doing that,” he replied.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was also asked about cross-border families being turned away at the border during a press conference in Ottawa on Friday. She said the government understands how difficult these situations can be for families, but they need to remember that border officers are trying to balance keeping Canadians safe with allowing the essential flow of goods and services to continue.
“It’s a lot of very difficult, very specific decisions the border agents have to make,” she said. “I will say as a government, we do encourage them to very much take into account the specific situations of specific families of specific Canadians, and where possible, to take a compassionate approach.”
Freeland also encouraged families who are having specific difficulties to contact their local MPs so they can look at them on a case-by-case basis.