Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Tuesday that some Canadians will be stranded abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic as airlines cancel flights en masse and countries close borders to foreign nationals.
But help is on the way. Here’s what Canadians south of the border and overseas need to know.
While the government has been clear that all Canadians outside the country should get home as soon as they can — including snowbirds now facing restricted medical insurance plans — some won’t have that option, given the increasing limits on travel.
WestJet is temporarily suspending all flights between Canada and the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and other international destinations as of Sunday, March 22 at 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time — an operational decision that will leave thousands scrambling to get home by other means. The flight cancellations will be in effect for at least 30 days.
The airline has said it will operate “rescue and repatriation flights with our partners” in the coming days but details on those operations are not yet available.
The federal government has said it has no plans to repatriate people from other countries — so travellers must rely on available commercial options to make their way back to Canada.
“There are three million Canadians at any given moment around the world, living and working, and I think it is just realistic to know that there are some of them who will not be coming home in the coming weeks,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday from self-isolation.
“We’re working with airlines to try and make sure that as many Canadians as possible, as many Canadians as want to, can come home. This is something all Canadians are expecting of their government, and we’re going to be doing it,” Trudeau said.
Starting March 18 at 12:01 a.m ET, airlines serving Canada will be required to do a basic health assessment of all air travellers before they board.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau has instructed all airlines to deny permission to board to anyone — including Canadian citizens — with COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever, cough or other respiratory issues. Those travellers will be asked to seek medical attention in the countries where they are.
“If a person is symptomatic, they will not be allowed to come home until their symptoms are treated wherever they happen to be, and that’s why we’ve also announced there will be some financial help as they get through that difficult period and eventually are able to come home,” Garneau said Tuesday.
However, there is an exception to this rule for people crossing by land.
Canadians crossing at a land border will be screened for symptoms. Sick individuals will be referred to public health authorities on the Canadian side of the border, but they will be allowed into the country. Major crossings will have quarantine officers on site to intercept the sick and supply masks.
“We know there are very many Canadians who are presently in the United States and are very quickly making their way home, and I want to assure them all, Canadians will always be allowed to return to Canada,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said of people crossing by land.
Regardless of how they enter the country, anyone coming into Canada from a foreign country must self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.
Even the healthy are having trouble getting home. Carey Roche and three other friends from the Ottawa area are stuck in Peru. Every flight from the Cusco airport there has been either cancelled or full.
They’ve been told they can’t drive to a neighbouring city for other travel options while the country is in the midst of a state of emergency.
“This leaves all of us with no choice but to book a minimum 15 night stay at a hotel in Arequipa, with no promise that it won’t be longer,” she said in an email to CBC News. “We have received no contact from the embassy other than an email saying not to rely on them for alternative travel plans.”
‘This situation is disgraceful’
Consuelo Allen, 79, a Canadian citizen now in Iloilo in the Philippines, doesn’t have a way home to Canada because there are severe limitations on domestic travel there. Her medical insurance policy will run out in early April.
“The domestic travel lockdown is in place ’til April 15 at the earliest so she will definitely be there after her insurance runs out, possibly a lot longer. She will be 80 in November — having health insurance seems “very important right now,” her daughter, Tori Allen, told CBC News.
“It seems wrong to leave senior Canadians stranded without insurance when they are prevented from travelling by local shutdowns.”
David Caruana is trying to help his wife and a number of her friends get back from Morocco. Their Wednesday flight from Casablanca to Montreal was abruptly cancelled as that country moved to shut down much of its airspace.
“This situation is disgraceful and intolerable as a reflection of our government and our national airline,” Caruana told CBC News. “Air Canada has done nothing to assist them, nor has my member of Parliament.”
Up to $5,000 available for travellers
To help people like Roche, Allen, Caruana and symptomatic Canadians stuck overseas, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has announced a new “special financial assistance program.”
The COVID-19 emergency loan program for Canadians abroad will give citizens the option of applying for an emergency, repayable loan of up to $5,000 to help pay for plane tickets — which have become much more expensive in recent days — or to “temporarily cover life-sustaining needs while they work toward their return,” according to a backgrounder supplied by the government.
“Each application will be assessed on the individual situation and need. In all cases the Canadian will need to undertake to repay the loan in its entirety,” the backgrounder said.
Eligible Canadians now outside Canada and needing help to return home can contact the nearest Government of Canada office or Global Affairs Canada’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at +1 613-996-8885 (collect calls are accepted where available), or they can email [email protected]
“Minister Champagne continues to work around the clock to provide assistance and consular services to Canadians and collaborate with his counterparts around the world to take action in limiting the global spread of this virus,” Global Affairs Canada said.
The department warned that in-person meetings might not be possible at embassies and consulates abroad, as public health authorities in some countries have asked that buildings be closed to the public.
“Depending on the service required, assistance and support may be provided through email exchanges, by phone, by mail, by fax or other electronic means,” the department said.