More than 7 million travellers have entered Canada during the pandemic. CBSA explains why

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Canada’s border closure to non-essential travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic — which is continuing until at least Jan. 21 — has sparked confusion and questions about who can and cannot enter.

To help unravel the country’s complex border restrictions, CBC News spoke with Denis Vinette, vice-president of the COVID-19 Border Task Force at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

“It’s been quite staggering,” Vinette said about how the pandemic has affected Canada’s borders. “The challenge on this has been dealing with — implementing these [border] controls.”

In late March, Canada closed its borders to foreigners visiting for non-essential reasons. Since then, more than seven million Canadians and foreigners have entered the country by land or air, according to the CBSA. That number includes multiple entries made by the same individuals.

The tally is actually a drop in the bucket compared with 2019 when, oftentimes, more than seven million people entered Canada in a single month.

More than 7 million travellers have entered Canada during the pandemic. CBSA explains why
Denis Vinette is vice-president of the Canada Border Services Agency’s COVID-19 Border Task Force and its Travellers Branch. He says Canadian citizens and permanent residents make up the largest group of people entering the country during the border shutdown. (CBSA)

Truckers keep the economy moving

Vinette said truck drivers account for the largest group of people entering Canada during the pandemic, making up about half of the total entries so far.

The second-biggest group is individuals who live in border towns and have jobs on the opposite side of the border, he said.

Both groups are exempt from Canada’s 14-day quarantine requirement — which was designed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Most of the trade in North America, between Canada and U.S., is by truck. It would come to a standstill” if truckers had to quarantine each time they entered, Vinette said.

“One of the early onset direction[s] that we received from the government was let’s make sure that trade continues to operate, flourish.”

When looking at nationalities, Vinette said, Canadian citizens and permanent residents make up the largest group of people entering the country during the border shutdown. That group includes leisure travellers.

More than 7 million travellers have entered Canada during the pandemic. CBSA explains why
Truck drivers have made up about half the more than seven million entries to Canada since the border closed to non-essential travel in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

Although the federal government advises Canadians to stay home, they can still fly to the U.S. and other countries that have open borders, but must quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

“There’s nothing that prevents a Canadian from leaving Canada, and when they return, they enter by right,” Vinette said.

According to CBSA data, just over one million Canadian air passengers have entered the country since March 21.

CBSA made mistakes

While it may be obvious why truck drivers get a free pass, questions have been raised about why some other travellers were granted entry to Canada — and got to bypass the quarantine requirement.

CBC News recently reported that the CEOs of two large U.S. companies — shipping giant Uline Inc. and retailer Costco — were each allowed to enter Canada and skip quarantine in August. During each of their short trips, the CEOs visited company-owned operations in Ontario.

Vinette said that, in both cases, CBSA officers misinterpreted the CEOs’ travel as essential and mistakenly allowed them to enter.

“Regrettably it did occur.”

Vinette said that the CBSA has since clarified with its officers what types of business travel qualifies as essential.

“Typically to come in and just visit your operations for the purposes of your annual visits would not be permitted,” he said.

WATCH | Costco executives mistakenly get quarantine exemption, Ottawa says:

More than 7 million travellers have entered Canada during the pandemic. CBSA explains why

CBC News has learned that Costco executives from the U.S., including the CEO, were given an exemption to Canada’s quarantine rules by border officers in August, which Canada Border Services Agency now says was an error. The exemption happened on the same day another group of U.S. executives received an exemption. 2:03

In late July, CBSA also beefed up rules for Americans driving through Canada to Alaska.

Since the start of the border closure, Americans have been allowed to drive directly through Canada to Alaska for non-discretionary reasons, such as for work or to return home. By the summer, it became clear that some were breaking the rules by going off-route for leisure trips during their treks.

“We had instances where people would enter in Quebec, transiting to Alaska from the East Coast, and they would spend upwards of two weeks in Canada,” Vinette said.

In response, CBSA now designates which border crossings Alaska-bound drivers can enter and the date by which they must exit Canada.

“Anyone who has taken more time will be subject to more scrutiny and perhaps even be refused entry to Canada in the future,” Vinette said.

Americans still trying to cross to shop

While millions of travellers have entered Canada during the border shutdown, CBSA has also denied entry to 28,612 foreigners (mostly Americans) who tried to cross from the U.S. by land or air, because they wanted to visit for non-essential reasons such as shopping or sightseeing.

More than 4,000 of them were denied entry in the past two months — despite months of news reports and warnings posted by the CBSA about the Canada-U.S. border shutdown.

“Some arrive unknowingly, not understanding or not having … captured any of our media around, ‘Now is not the time to travel,'” Vinette said.

For the first six months of the pandemic, CBSA officers also had to turn away many people trying to visit loved ones in Canada, including their partners. Although Canada began allowing foreigners with immediate family to enter in September, many unmarried couples didn’t qualify.

“It was heartbreaking because you had folks arriving at the border, wanting to reunite, not having been with partners for long periods of time,” Vinette said.

Canada further loosened its travel restrictions on Oct. 8, allowing some extended family and couples dating for at least a year to reunite — once they get pre-approval from the government. 

“It has certainly made [a border officer’s] job a whole lot easier,” Vinette said.

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