Early last week, with the global coronavirus pandemic starting to make its presence felt in North America, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a simple message to Canadians abroad: “It’s time to come home”.
So ensued a scramble among Canadians living in various corners of the world trying to secure flights back to Canada, all while other countries prepared to lock down their borders resulting in flight cancellations and soaring air fares.
Since Trudeau’s initial announcement, Canada has closed its borders to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident and authorities have stated that no one with symptoms of COVID-19 would be allowed to board a plane to enter Canada.
Anyone entering the country has also been ordered to self isolate for at least 14 days upon their return.
This article details the journeys of two Victoria residents as they made their way back home amid increased travel restrictions, and their accounts of how Canada has been handling returning travellers at the border during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Santiago -> Toronto -> Vancouver -> Victoria
25-year-old Thor Tronrud is a PhD student at Chile’s Universidad Andrés Bello. He had been visiting his family in Victoria until March 7th, before flying back to Santiago to work on his degree. Just a little less than two weeks later, he was forced to return to Victoria.
“I felt quite rushed when Trudeau said Canadians need to come home. As soon as he said that, I checked flights and almost all of them that day were taken,” Tronrud tells Victoria Buzz.
“So I initially booked a flight for that Friday [March 20th] but then of course I heard that Chile was closing its borders soon and I didn’t know whether it would be both directions or just inbound so I rushed to try and find more flights.”
He managed to find a United Airlines flight the next day that would take him through Bogota and the U.S. before arriving in Canada. But when he got to the crowded airport, the desk attendant told him that flight had been cancelled without explanation.
So he decided to book the next available flight – an Air Canada route that would take him to Toronto, Vancouver and finally, Victoria. The seat was one of the last two remaining, located in Business Class, and cost him a hefty $3,000.
Tronrud decided to try and contact Air Canada directly to confirm this flight would not be cancelled, but the company’s phone lines were no longer taking calls and they issued no responses on social media.
He also reported not received any communication of support from Canadian consular services or Global Affairs Canada.
Fortunately this second flight was still operational on Wednesday, March 18th and Tronrud was able to board along with a host of other passengers, some of whom he said were coughing while waiting in line.
According to him, there were no officials screening for COVID-19 symptoms or taking temperatures before allowing people to board the flight to Canada.
Once on board the 10 and a half hour flight, all passengers were told that instead of serving multiple meals, flight staff would only be serving dinner in order to minimize contact between air crew and passengers.
“But that rule seemed to only be in effect for Economy class passengers. Because I was in Business class, I had service for the entire flight and they offered me a full menu,” says Tronrud.
Flight attendants also informed passengers that they would require individuals to wear a mask – and provide it to them – if they felt it was necessary for the protection of other passengers.
Upon arrival in Toronto, Tronrud noted multiple screens at the terminal informing people about symptoms of COVID-19 and advising them to wash their hands frequently.
The customs official recording his entry into Canada asked him if he had felt sick in the past few weeks. Once Tronrud said no, he continued to fill in all the usual paperwork, and ended the exchange by telling him to self isolate for 14 days.
“I was surprised. I thought there would be more,” says Tronrud, clarifying that he had expected someone to take his temperature and record his seat information.
These were steps that the Chilean airport had taken when Tronrud first landed in Santiago on March 9th to curb and successfully track the spread of COVID-19 there. Chile currently has 922 confirmed cases of coronavirus; there are now nearly 2,000 in Canada.
After clearing customs at Toronto Pearson International Airport, Tronrud made his way to the domestic terminal for a flight to Vancouver, B.C. where he would then transfer to a flight to Victoria.
Again on this flight, passengers were advised that meal service was suspended due lessen direct contact between air crew and travellers. Again, Business class was exempt from the rule.
Once Tronrud arrived safely back home in Victoria, he began the process of figuring out how to self isolate while living in the same house as his middle-aged parents.
“It’s tough. I have to take on a lot of that responsibility of making sure I’m washing my hands before going anywhere outside of my room in the house, before I touch anything that they could be touching, things like that,” he says.
While he’s been following all the rules, he says no health officials or authorities have followed up or made contact to make sure that he is self isolating.
When asked about what he thinks Canada could be doing better to curb the spread of the virus particularly among travellers at the border, Tronrud says health authorities should start by taking temperatures.
“I understand there aren’t enough COVID-19 screening tests for everyone, but if they were able to test people with symptoms, they could at least keep track of them. Or if someone has a high temperature, then tell them,” he adds.
“Not enough seems to be really being done outside of just handing people information sheets.”
Brisbane -> LA -> Vancouver
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Chantal Wainman’s life had been turned upside down by Trudeau’s announcement.
“A week ago today, I thought I was going to still be in Australia going back to my full time job,” Wainman tells Victoria Buzz.
27-year-old Wainman lived and worked as a restaurant manager in Australia for nearly three years. Like many others, when Trudeau issued his statement summoning Canadians home, she immediately began trying to find a flight.
Originally she had wanted to catch an Air Canada flight with her friend, but seats for that flight were nearly sold out within hours, with only a few remaining at massive markups of $8,000+.
Fortunately she was able to find a Qantas Airline flight for a relatively inexpensive $1,800 that would take her from Brisbane to Los Angeles and then to Vancouver on an American Airlines flight.
“There were lots of Canadians on the Brisbane to LAX flight. I spoke to a couple of them and found out they had paid $4,000 or more for their tickets. I’m really fortunate to have been able to book mine through a travel agent,” says Wainman.
Before boarding her flight from Brisbane, Wainman says flight attendants from Qantas did administer random temperature checks to record COVID-19 symptoms.
On the flight itself, unlike the Air Canada flight from Santiago, there were no meal restrictions for any of the passengers.
“I wore gloves and my friend and I made masks out of an old bra so I wore that because no masks were available,” she adds with a laugh.
Wainman reports minimal activity at LAX upon arriving at the international terminal at around 5 a.m. on March 20th. She then boarded her American Airlines flight to Vancouver.
At Vancouver International Vancouver
“I feel Australia is a little bit behind with everything because when I showed up in Vancouver, I was shocked with how seriously it’s being taken here.”
Although no temperatures were recorded at YVR on arrival, authorities reiterated the risks of COVID-19 transmission over five times and at every stop asked passengers if they were displaying any symptoms of the virus.
Like in Toronto, passengers were given a written document ordering them to self isolate for 14 days and advising them on how best to do so.
From Vancouver, Wainman took a cab and skytrain – where she noted all passengers observed proper social distancing – to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, boarded a BC Ferries vessel and made her way to Victoria.
“I’ve been away from home for long, so it’s difficult not being able to see friends and family but essentially I’ve been overseas so I’m not even allowed to go out for walks,” says Wainman, talking about the challenges of living in quarantine.
“It hasn’t even been 24 hours yet [since I’ve been back], so I presume it’s going to get a bit cabin fever-y [sic].”
Over the course of her journey, Wainman believes flights could have done a better job of maintaining higher sanitization standards by cleaning the on-flight bathrooms more frequently and supplying passengers with masks and gloves.
All in all, based on her experiences, Wainman presents that Canada is doing a better job of handling the pandemic than Australia where she says most people did not observe self isolation or social distancing measures while she was there.
According to the latest updates, there are 2,423 cases of COVID-19 in Australia.