By asking the provinces how they think international travel should resume since it was largely restricted over a year ago, the federal government may get more questions than answers.
During one of their biweekly meetings on Friday, the provinces’ and territories’ Health ministers will discuss with their federal counterpart how Canada should reopen international travel. Specifically, they’ll discuss a report released May 27 by a federally appointed panel of health experts, who recommended that Canada end its hotel-quarantine system, and ditch or shorten quarantines for travellers altogether, depending on their COVID-vaccination status.
When reporters asked repeatedly last Friday what she planned to do next, given those recommendations, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she wanted to talk to her provincial and territorial counterparts before making any changes.
Consulting the provinces follows the federal government’s “Team Canada” approach to responding to the pandemic, a source in the minister’s office said. Friday’s meeting will present the opportunity to discuss changing border rules, as recommended by the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel. Finding consensus is the goal, but equally crucial for the federal government — which is solely responsible for Canada’s international borders — is hearing from each province and territory, which hold a wide range of views about how border policy should evolve as the country emerges from a third wave of COVID cases.
The most populous provinces, Quebec and Ontario, are in one camp, Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday, because neither wants borders loosened until enough people are fully vaccinated with two doses.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford — who blames his province’s third wave on COVID variants that originated outside the country — has been saying for weeks that a loophole must be closed that allows people entering Canada from the U.S. to avoid hotel quarantines, which are mandatory for anyone arriving by plane. Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said in response to a question from iPolitics on Thursday that she’ll “continue to reiterate Ontario’s position on that” at Friday’s meeting of health ministers.
“We need to make sure that, if people come in, they follow the quarantine and do stay in the quarantine hotel,” Elliott said.
Alberta, meanwhile, wants the U.S. border opened up, Legault said Tuesday. A spokesperson for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro didn’t respond to two emails iPolitics sent him this week, asking what changes to Canada’s travel restrictions Shandro will ask Hajdu to make.
Last week, while announcing Alberta’s reopening plan and talking about the province’s third, final, and least restrictive phase, which is scheduled to begin in July, Premier Jason Kenney said, “We’ll also welcome back domestic and international visitors to Alberta to experience everything that our great province has to offer.” He also acknowledged that international travel protocols are ultimately Ottawa’s call.
Kenney’s neighbour-premier, B.C.’s John Horgan, has positioned himself closer to Ontario and Quebec. Speaking to Global News last Friday, Horgan said travel restrictions should ease only when 75 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated. Canada won’t reach that threshold until August or September.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has only vaguely said he hopes Ottawa eases international travel restrictions when Canada exceeds the vaccine coverage recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), as reported by CTV News. PHAC says in-person college classes, indoor sports, and family gatherings can begin after 75 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated. Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman’s staff did not respond to two emails sent this week asking what he’ll propose on Friday.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has not taken a firm stand either way. A spokesperson for Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson said she would wait to express her opinion until after Friday’s meeting.
New Brunswick, the last province with an international border, which it shares with Maine, has spent most of the last year in a “bubble” with the other Atlantic provinces. Most travellers to those provinces, including other Canadians, have had to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. According to its phased reopening plans, New Brunswick will use a tiered system based on travellers’ vaccination status to let them enter the province by Canada Day. Those plans depend on Ottawa lifting travel restrictions. Multiple calls and emails to a spokesperson and other staff in New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard’s office were not returned.
March 2020 to June 2021
The federal government has gradually added to its border and travel restrictions since the pandemic began.
In mid-March 2020, most non-residents were barred from entering Canada. Ottawa implemented its mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning travellers around the same time. Canada and the U.S. agreed to close their shared border — the longest international border in the world — around the same time.
In February of this year, the government began requiring people returning to the country to show proof of a recent negative COVID test. The same month, it implemented its controversial hotel-quarantine system.
Travellers arriving by air have had to stay for up to three days in approved hotels while awaiting negative COVID tests they must take upon landing in Canada. Travellers must pay up to $3,000 per person for their stay. If travellers test positive for COVID, they’re transferred to another hotel for the remainder of their 14-day quarantine. If they test negative, they can quarantine somewhere else of their choosing.
On Thursday, the federal government increased the fine for skipping hotel quarantine from $3,000 to $5,000.
While other countries, included the European Union, recently announced plans to ease travel limits, the government is facing pressure to evolve or loosen its restrictions, too.
Canadian companies in the travel, hospitality, and entertainment sectors want the government to release a plan explaining how international travel will resume.
Two Liberal MPs released a statement on Wednesday saying that reopening the Canada-U.S. border should be a “top priority” for both countries’ governments at this point in the pandemic.
“It is time for our governments to listen to the experts, and together release an evidence-based plan to reunite families, safely resume normal border operations, and quickly restore our two countries’ deeply interconnected economies,” said Liberal MPs Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Wayne Easter, along with U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins, in a joint statement.
Canada’s existing border and travel restrictions are in effect until June 21.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel internationally for the first time since the pandemic began, from June 11 to at least June 15, to attend the G7 Leaders’ Summit in the U.K., the NATO Summit, and the Canada-European Union Summit in Belgium.
For at least three months, the federal government has also been exploring the idea of COVID-vaccine passports, documents to prove a citizen has been vaccinated before he or she can enter another country.
Two weeks ago, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said he couldn’t say when such a system would be in place.
“At this moment, I can’t given you a specific date, but I want to assure you, and all Canadians: That work is ongoing,” Alghabra said.
With files from Iain Sherriff-Scott and Kevin Dougherty
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