My struggles with Canadian Border officers during COVID
By CJ Sommerfeld, Contributor
The recent movement aiming to defund the police has resulted in an acknowledgment of the abuse of power which some officers in law enforcement have wrongfully exercised. Not all persons in power who have been abusing their capabilities have been highly publicized, however—and this includes the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers.
CBSA officers are the police-looking guys that validate your entrance upon arrival to Canada. They are at every border crossing, regardless if you are entering by train, plane, or automobile. If you are a Canadian citizen, a simple flash of your passport is the extent of your exchange with them. Encounters with these guys are more memorable for those who do not hold a Canadian passport since they check an individual’s study or work permit and other visas which grant different international visitors access. CBSA officers are also the guys who determined who was able to enter when Trudeau first implemented border restrictions on March 16 to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Like many other countries, when the virus began spreading globally, Canada closed its borders to all tourism and most foreign nationals. There were few exceptions for those who were not Canadian who could still enter the country. These guidelines were explicitly outlined on the Government of Canada’s website. Among exceptions, there was a section dedicated to family reunification. This section outlined unique criteria for immediate family members of citizens and residents, which exempted them from the travel ban. Trudeau stated that he had created these particular travel exemptions to reunite families during the pandemic period.
Weirdly enough, between March and June, a fury of border rejection stories began popping up online. Despite the government listing travel ban exemptions on their website for family members, based on all the surfacing border-horror stories, it was evident that the CBSA officers had a criterion of their own as to who was allowed to enter. Among these stories was one of an American and Canadian couple who was expecting their first child together. The American father-to-be attempted entering Canada at multiple border crossings to witness his son’s birth in Canada; however, not a single CBSA officer would let him enter. Their justification for his entry refusal? They deemed the reason why he wanted to come to Canada as discretionary. This is just one of the many similar stories where some of these officers have abused their jurisdiction during the recent COVID travel ban. The CBSA officers sometimes seem to be going against what type of travel is defined as discretionary, as stated in the Quarantine Act. In doing so, they have split up many families. One such story happened to myself and my common-law partner.
During the winter 2020 semester, I took part in a university exchange in Spain. Not wanting to be apart for six months, my partner came with me. After quarantining for two months, the upcoming months in Europe looked bleak, so we decided that we would instead return to our apartment in Canada. My partner and I have lived together for over a year. He is a Mexican citizen, however, despite Trudeau having established border restrictions for foreign nationals, we were not worried as we had our lease for our Vancouver apartment as documentation of our common-law status, which would deem him as a family member and a Canadian citizen. We even called both Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to get their clearance. Both organizations confirmed that if we were to return to Canada, my partner would be granted entry, so we purchased flights for the beginning of May.
Our first port of entry was at Toronto Pearson Airport, from there we were supposed to catch a connecting flight to YVR. Upon arrival at Toronto Pearson, we were sent to secondary inspection, where a gang of CBSA officers confronted us. We were told that my partner did not need to be in Canada. They then told us that since my partner was not a citizen nor resident, they would be putting him on the next flight to Mexico. Could he do that?! I reminded him of what was stated on the Government of Canada’s website regarding the reunification of immediate family members and what Global Affairs Canada and IRCC had told us. The CBSA officer scoffed and enlightened me about the website’s semantics: “Immediate family members are allowed to travel to Canada. Travel to,” he emphasized, “Your boyfriend can travel here, but that doesn’t guarantee him entry.” As if Trudeau had written a riddle on the country’s website: a-doo-doo-you-can-travel-to-Canada-to-Canada-but-you-cannot-enter-Canada-enter-Canada-a-doo-doo-doo! How could the CBSA officer have thought that we would believe this? What a joke.
What was it to him? Entering Canada would not break any laws, nor anything stated in the Quarantine Act. Not to mention, we had been self-isolated for two months prior and would be doing so for another two weeks in our Vancouver apartment. He did not care that my partner’s home and life was in Canada and that by denying him entrance, my partner and I could be apart in different countries for an unknown amount of time. He was the only one who had the power to grant his entry, and he did not.
The officer told us that he was putting my partner on the next flight to Mexico, regardless of how near or far the airport was from the city which his family lived in. The flight would leave in 20 hours. I informed the officer that since Mexico did not have any border restrictions, I would purchase the same ticket as the flight they were putting him on. I asked if I could sit in the waiting area which they were bringing my partner to. He told me “no.”
On June 8, after such a flurry of wrongful-rejection stories surfaced, changes were made to broaden the criteria for people to enter Canadian borders. This allowed access to many family members who were previously denied entrance into the country. If there were a spectrum of law enforcement abusing their power, perhaps the CBSA officers would be on the lower end. That does not extinguish, however, that what these officers have been doing is wrong. Among those many good people in law enforcement who strive to protect and serve is a vile segment who have been taking advantage of the power which their job titles grant them.