VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – What is essential travel and what is not still appears to be murky to both travellers and border agents more than a month after travel was restricted across the Canada-U.S. border.
It comes after an American woman says she was not allowed into Canada to see her Canadian boyfriend in Burnaby last Friday, even though she had been allowed in to visit him in April.
“I consider him my partner and therefore essential even though we don’t have legal status together,” says Elizabeth DeBarbieri, who lives in Philadelphia. “This is an essential travel for us and, you know, the fact that it’s up to whatever agent you might encounter that day and one could let you and the other could not … it’s maddening.”
DeBarbieri says she usually visits her partner every month and stays with him for a few weeks. In early April, when the border was already closed to non-essential travel, she says she was able to make her usual trip up to see him, no problem.
“They took my paperwork, they looked at my passport, asked me if I was a citizen, if I had permanent resident status, I said ‘no, no to both … I’m coming to be with my significant other,’ and [the border agent] said absolutely fine. She made me write down where I was going to be quarantining,” recalls DeBarbieri. “She approved me and I was able to connect to Vancouver without a problem.
So when she tried to visit again last Friday, she was surprised when she was denied after landing at YVR.
“They didn’t consider my trip essential, you know, they basically would classify me as a tourist,” says DeBarbieri. “I don’t think that exactly applies in our situation, I mean we are, you know, we’re in a partnership, we’re trying to start a family, we need to be in the same place for those things.”
When she told border agents she had been allowed into Canada a few weeks before, DeBarbieri says she was told “things are changing everyday.”
“I had checked the official websites before my trip to make sure there wasn’t any new restrictions in place or updates and there was … the only thing was that you are now required to wear a mask on your flight which I did, I wore a mask the whole way,” adds DeBarbieri.
While the border closure is supposed to go both ways, DeBarbieri says her boyfriend was able to drive down to the U.S. after she was denied entrance into Canada.
“It’s almost like a Russian roulette. You don’t know when you come if you’re even going to be allowed in, even if you follow all the rules,” she says. “It’s just completely frustrating that that’s up to the opinion of a border agent.”
DeBarbieri stresses that she understands why the border closure is in place, adding the couple takes every precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. We totally understand that there needs to be measures in place because of this is a horrible virus and we’ve always followed the rules, you know, we’re always very careful, we self-isolate, we’re not around any vulnerable people.”
Rules not applied consistently
Evelyn Ackah, an immigration lawyer based in Calgary, says she’s seeing the rules around the border closure applied irregularly.
“What we are seeing at Ackah Business Immigration Law is that the rules regarding essential workers are not being applied consistently – as sometimes people are admitted at ports and other times people with the same exact situation are being refused entry to Canada,” she tells NEWS 1130.
“It’s quite unfortunate and challenging to advise clients about. When it comes to business or work in an essential industry, it’s easier to predict success versus the personal family relationship situations.”
Mark Belanger, a lawyer at Border Solutions Law Group in Vancouver, argues the border isn’t actually closed, at least to Canadians travelling into the States by air. He points to the the actual agreement between Canada and the U.S., which is codified in the federal register. It says the border is closed to non-essential travel only at the land port of entry and the ferry terminals, meaning it’s not being enforced at airports.
“So if you’re a tourist and for whatever reason you do want to go to the Unites States, you can go through the airport, you can fly into the U.S. as a tourist if you’re a Canadian right now. You can, it’s legal. I’ve had clients do that, who really needed to get down there for one reason or another.” he tells NEWS 1130.
Belanger adds he’s heard from colleagues that some people are being denied entrance into Canada or the U.S. because border agents aren’t properly applying discretion, like in the case of DeBarbieri.
“Here you see a perfect example of officer discretion creating a contradictory result to what was actually permissible before,” he adds. “What we have here is an inconsistency in adjudication and that’s part of the reason a guy like me remains busy, because of these inconsistencies.”
Must demonstrate that travel is essential
The Canada Border Services Agency says to enter Canada, a foreign national spouse and/or other immediate family member of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, must demonstrate that their travel is essential.
“If the travel is deemed non-discretionary, they will need to prove they have suitable quarantine accommodation and plan to have basic necessities delivered to them for their 14-day mandatory quarantine as would any other traveller entering Canada. If travel of the immediate family member / spouse is deemed non-essential they will not be allowed to enter Canada,” a spokesperson told NEWS 1130.
The CBSA couldn’t say why DeBarbieri was allowed into Canada last month but denied last week, citing privacy reasons.
The Government of Canada website lists examples of essential travel, but doesn’t go into specifics.
“If you are healthy and must cross the border for work or other non-discretionary (essential) purposes, you may continue to do so. Some examples of essential travel purposes are: work and study, critical infrastructure support, economic services and supply chains, shopping for essential goods, and health, immediate medical care, safety and security.”
DeBarbieri says she and her partner are currently in Seattle, working on getting both of them into Canada, together.
“This has just basically consumed our lives for the past week.”