Anu Khullar says she was shocked how easy it was to refuse to quarantine in a hotel after landing in Calgary on June 20, following a trip to Honduras.
She received no pushback and no fine, she said.
“There were two police officers standing there and they just smiled at me and said, ‘Hi,'” said Khullar, an Edmonton-based Realtor who owns a home in Honduras.
“Got my luggage, got my car, drove home, everything was great.”
Canada’s hotel quarantine requirement for international air passengers ended in August, but it’s still sparking controversy. That’s because while more than 5,000 air passengers who refused to quarantine in a hotel were hit with fines, others who violated the rule faced no repercussions.
“This wasn’t a program that was sort of implemented fairly, necessarily, across the board,” said Cara Zwibel, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s fundamental freedoms program.
CBC News has yet to confirm that any hotel quarantine fines have been issued to date to air passengers who landed in Calgary or Montreal. They are two of just four cities — along with Vancouver and Toronto — where international passengers could land while the hotel quarantine rule was in effect, from Feb. 22 to Aug. 8.
The absence of fines issued in Calgary doesn’t mean all Calgary arrivals obeyed the rules. Seven travellers told CBC News they landed in the city, refused to quarantine in a hotel and received no fines.
“This was way too easy,” said Khullar.
Khullar said she felt no need to quarantine in a hotel because she was fully vaccinated and could do her full 14-day quarantine in her empty house.
Her original return flight to Canada was to land in Vancouver. But Khullar said she switched her arrival city to Calgary after reading scores of posts on social media from people who said they landed in Calgary, refused to go to a quarantine hotel and didn’t get fined.
“It was an absolute joke,” said Khullar. “You might as well say, ‘OK everybody, just fly back to Alberta. You don’t have to worry about a single fine.'”
Who can issue fines in Calgary?
The federal government created its hotel quarantine program to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The program required international air passengers to do part of their quarantine in a designated hotel while waiting for their post-arrival COVID-19 test results. Passengers had to foot the hotel bill, which could run as high as $2,000.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has posted records of 5,315 fines issued to air passengers who refused to quarantine in a hotel. They range from $3,000 to $5,000 plus added fees.
Almost all of the fines were given to travellers who landed in Toronto (4,711) and Vancouver (601). The remaining three involved Montreal arrivals. However, PHAC clarified in a footnote that it’s unknown if those three cases actually resulted in fines.
None of the fines were issued in Calgary.
According to Statistics Canada, 434,210 non-essential air passengers entered Canada from March through June, the busiest months for the hotel quarantine program. Of that total, 225,809 landed in Toronto, 94,084 in Montreal, 80,722 in Vancouver and 33,595 in Calgary.
PHAC told CBC News its officers couldn’t fine hotel quarantine violators in Alberta because the province never adopted the federal Contraventions Act. But the agency said police in Alberta could issue the fines and suggested checking with police for up-to-date statistics.
Alberta RCMP and Calgary police told CBC News they have issued no such fines. In May, Calgary police said fining hotel quarantine violators was a challenge because they could only investigate a case if they receive a complaint.
Any fines in Quebec?
CBC News also heard from five travellers who said they had landed in Montreal, refused to quarantine in a hotel and have yet to receive a fine.
Synthia Vignola flew to Montreal from Colombia on March 21. Vignola said she refused to go to a quarantine hotel because she felt safer isolating at her home in Sainte-Marthe, Que.
Vignola said a federal government official at the airport told her she’d receive a fine in the mail. More than five months later, no fine has arrived, she said.
“I’m not surprised,” said Vignola. “A lot of people [broke the rules]. Nobody receives nothing.”
PHAC said its officers couldn’t fine quarantine offenders who landed in Montreal because, in Quebec, these types of fines can only be issued by provincial prosecutors.
The office of Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions (DPCP) told CBC News it is unable to provide specific data on the number of fines it has issued to hotel quarantine violators — or even confirm if any have been issued.
DPCP said people can receive a fine up to one year after committing a violation.
‘I’m not paying it’
It’s a different story for air passengers who landed in Vancouver and Toronto and refused to quarantine in a hotel.
CBC News interviewed eight travellers who were fined between $3,450 and $6,255 by authorities at the Vancouver or Toronto airport. They each said they plan to contest their fine in court and feel it’s unfair they should have to pay when other travellers have faced no repercussions.
“I’m not paying it, because this absolutely doesn’t make any sense,” said Michael Allen of Windsor, Ont. The former CFL player turned organic gardener was fined $6,255 at the Toronto airport on July 8. He said he was returning from a business trip to Jamaica.
Allen said he refused to quarantine in a hotel because he felt it was best to do his full quarantine at his empty house.
He’s now waiting to fight his fine in court.
“Some people get fined. Some don’t.… There is no consistency,” said Allen, who also pointed out that travellers who entered Canada by land did not have to quarantine in a hotel.
“All these things make it unjust. It’s just an unjust law.”
Lawyer Zwibel said the inconsistency is one of the many reasons she believes the quarantine program was flawed and unnecessary.
“The reality is that the law can’t solve every problem, and this is one instance where I think the law was not very effective,” she said. “There are other tools that probably work better, tools like public education.”
When asked about claims the hotel quarantine program was unfair because some travellers didn’t get fined, PHAC reiterated that authorities in Alberta and Quebec had the power to issue fines.
The agency also said the hotel quarantine requirement was implemented only for international air passengers because, at the time, air travel accounted for most leisure trips, and air travellers generally had higher COVID-19 test positivity rates than those travelling by land.