The answer is more complicated than you might think.
After a slew of scandals over federal and provincial politicians across the political spectrum travelling abroad over the holidays, Ottawa rolled out rules that, effective Jan. 7, require passengers flying to Canada to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week people who travelled outside Canada for non-essential reasons won’t be eligible for the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which provides $500 a week for up to two weeks to those forced into quarantine.
But Canada isn’t preventing travellers from leaving the country.
There is a misconception that the federal government can “legislate against travel outside the country,” Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc recently said during an official COVID-19 update.
“If you look around the world in countries that have requirements for exit visas I’m not sure we want to be on the list of those countries,” he added.
And nothing prevents Canadian citizens and permanent residents who travelled abroad for vacation or leisure from returning home, according to the federal government’s current online guidelines on international travel.
The right to freedom of movement for Canadians is sanctioned in Section 6 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.”
“For Canadians, we have a charter right to enter and leave Canada and also to move around from province to province to live and work,” says University of Ottawa law professor Martha Jackman. “Any restrictions that are imposed on that mobility is subject to charter review and would have to be justified as a reasonable limit on Canadians’ charter rights.”
But governments have leeway to restrict travel even for Canadian citizens “so long as that restriction can be justified under Section 1 of the Charter, which allows for reasonable limits on charter rights,” Jackman adds.
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In a pandemic, it’s “rational” to restrict travel to protect public health, Jackman says, but both Ottawa and provincial governments must grapple with the question of whether there are “other ways to achieve those objectives that would be less restrictive of Canadians’ mobility rights.”
For now, Jackman says, “from a public health perspective, the balance of opinion seems to be that self-quarantine is an alternative to outright prohibitions on travel.”
How will the government tell who’s been on vacation?
Another open question is how Ottawa will be able to tell which sickness benefit applicants travelled abroad and who did so for vacation or other non-essential purposes.
Official government information on the CRSB says the Canada Revenue Agency, which administers the benefit, will verify eligibility, adding that those who are found to have intentionally made fraudulent claims may penalties or possibly jail time.
The CRA may validate applications before issuing payments, the website adds. But the current verification process appears geared toward checking applicants’ employment status and whether they meet qualifying income thresholds for the benefit. There is no mention of additional questions the CRA may ask about travel.
A CRA spokesperson told Global News the government will provide an update on this “in the near future.”
Also unclear is the issue of what constitutes non-essential travel that would exclude people from accessing the CRSB.
Foreign nationals seeking entry to Canada can refer to detailed guidelines about who is currently allowed in. For example, immediate family members of Canadian citizens, permanent residents or persons registered under Canada’s Indian Act can come to Canada if they’re staying for 15 days or more. Also allowed is travelling to Canada to care for someone critically ill, to attend a funeral or be present during the final moments of life for a loved one, provided the traveller has received the green light from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Even for non-Canadians, there’s room for interpretation on both who can enter and who can do so without spending 14 days in quarantine, says Ottawa immigration lawyer Warren Creates. Currently, quarantine exemptions include essential workers, people who commute daily across the border for work and crew members, among others.
“In some cases at the border, they just wave them [trough],” he says. “In other cases, they look at whether there’s a two-inch-thick book of documents that’s been prepared to seek the exemption.”
But Canadians may have a hard time finding hard-and-fast rules on what’s considered optional travel for them. The office of Transport Minister Marc Garneau did not directly address a request by Global News about whether the government has provided guidelines on the matter.
The government’s “Find out if you can travel to Canada” online quiz lists leisure, visiting, weddings, property upkeep and return from travel as examples of optional reasons for crossing the border.
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