The first known case of COVID-19 in Canada was recorded on January 25, 2020. It was brought to the country by a traveler who had recently been near the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was known to have originated. By February 26, there were 12 cases of the novel virus within Canada’s borders – 9 with relations to travel in China, and 3 to Iran. Following that, Canadian cases began to climb rapidly. It was not until March 24, that Health Canada reported that transmission within the country’s borders had become the primary source of infection. While the nation has implemented various restrictions targeting the spread of the virus from within, from the very beginning, restricting travel has been one of Canada’s main focuses in tackling this deadly disease.
Canada’s first travel related caution was administered by the government on January 29, 2020 and it warned against all non-essential travel to China. A plethora of similar warnings ensued, as 6 additional cautions were provided by the government before any real restrictions were implemented. On March 18, however, Canada changed tactics and made the decision to suddenly bar the entry of all foreign nationals, except those coming from the United States. Three days later, the nation lifted the exemption on its southern neighbour and denied the entry of any foreigners coming to Canada – Americans included. Within a week, Canada had closed off all of its borders—with the exception of essential travellers—to everyone that did not possess a Canadian passport or Permanent Residency card. Soon after, Ottawa began providing flights to stranded Canadians across the world attempting to come home.
In the grand scheme of Canada’s response to COVID-19, there was little to no visible effect of these travel restrictions, as cases continued to surge until early May 2020. As the year went on, however, the nation’s curve began to go down over time. In response to this, the country began opening up more and loosening restrictions in almost all aspects of life, with the key exception of international travel. During the summer months, Canadians returning home as well as other travellers deemed essential were required to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel or their place of residence before going out into society. This measure, introduced on March 24 and still in effect today, placed a burden on international travellers while bars, restaurants, gyms, and retail stores continued to operate all over the country.
People who would have otherwise made the trip to Canada, such as family members and students, were discouraged from coming. As a result, many Canadians were unable to see their loved ones because of the harsh reality put forth by Parliament Hill. In addition, international students who were set to begin their studies in the Fall were met with unclear guidelines and varying developments at ports of entry that oftentimes led to ambiguous travel plans and, in some cases, even deportation.
The fall of 2020 saw rising COVID-19 cases as Canada began experiencing its second wave of the infamous virus. Domestically, restrictions were tightened as many of the previous amenities such as bars, restaurants, and gyms began to gradually shift to more remote measures. Internationally, however, things were oddly different. Non-essential travel remained prohibited, but the government began loosening restrictions on families and students. First, as of October 8th, extended family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents began to be allowed into Canada. This could include grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, adult children, and even exclusive, but unmarried partners and their dependent children.
Later that month, on October 20th, all students attending approved Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs) were also permitted to enter the country. Previously, students who attended these DLI’s could be turned away per the judgement of the immigration officer, but as of the fall, international students had a more secure method of travelling to Canada. Nevertheless, these changes were made in parallel to a continuous rise in infections and deaths as the impacts of the second wave devastated people all over the country.
As cases surged throughout the end of 2020 and into the beginning of 2021, the government of Canada remained poised to stop the spread of COVID-19 within its borders. Measures inside of the country were elevated and many big cities and hotspots went into lockdowns. Some, including Montreal, were even subject to curfews.
Meanwhile, many of the international travel restrictions remained in place, although calls to heighten them were mounting in Ottawa. Non-essential travellers were still not authorized to travel, quarantine measures were still in place, and the lifted restrictions on families and students remained intact. This combination of measures seemed to prove effective, seeing as, by mid-January, the nation’s overall curve was again on the downturn and the second wave appeared to be at an end.
What followed this relative success on the part of federal, provincial, and regional administrations within Canada, were suggestions that the regulations on travel in place were still not sufficient. On January 15, it was announced that further restrictions discouraging international travel would be implemented. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared first that international travellers would, as of January 31, only be able to land in four destinations across Canada: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal—and have to present a negative PCR test before boarding and upon arrival. It was then added that, as of February 22, all international travellers would be administered another PCR test upon arrival, and have to complete a 3 day quarantine at a designated hotel—only upon the receipt of a negative PCR would they be allowed to quarantine at their residence. Trudeau estimated costs for this to be around $2,000 CAD. The government cited discouraging all non-essential travel abroad, in response to the number of Canadians vacationing and visiting warmer destinations during the cold, northern winters, as its reasoning for the implementation of these new guidelines. International restrictions were stringent, albeit domestic policies were not. Cities across the country began giving leeway to its residents as more amenities were slowly becoming increasingly available due to the passing of the second wave. A select few major cities, including Ottawa, reopened bars and restaurants, attracting scores of people wanting to enjoy what they had lacked for the past few months. What ensued was a rise in COVID-19 cases in early March, that has only recently begun to slow.
Currently, Canada has been facing an amount of cases comparable to its peak in January. Travel restrictions persist and remain as intense as ever and domestically, much of Canada has gone back into confinement due to the unanticipated developments. The federal government has additionally been chastised for its mishandling of vaccine distribution, as now, numerous developed countries have surpassed Canada with respect to vaccination and immunization. Canada’s approach to controlling the spread, which could be viewed as an epitome of proper governance at the beginning of the pandemic, now pales in comparison to the successful vaccine rollout in the neighbouring United States.
The developed, centralized, and capital-abundant nation of Canada possessed all the resources it needed to prevail against COVID-19. If the government decided to dedicate its resources more to solving the problem instead of its containment, there may have been a more favourable outcome for Canada and its people. Moreover, if the government’s strategy was focussed perhaps to a greater extent on domestic matters, rather than the exclusion of foreigners, the state might be in a better position.
Fortunately, there is still time for Ottawa to reverse the existing storyline and push the nation towards the highly anticipated ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. This, however, would require the nation’s leadership to properly assess the situation and contemplate an apt approach to rapidly and decisively halting the spread of the virus, while also safely administering as many vaccine doses as possible. Time will tell if the Canadian government can pull this off or not.
Edited by Arielle De Leon
Photo credits: “Air Canada Embraer ERJ-190AR, C-FHNP – Toronto Pearson” by edk7 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. No changes were made.
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.