Photo by Laura Lefurgey-Smith via Unsplash
During a CBC interview Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau repeatedly said that “all options are on the table” to limit non-essential travel as the federal government looks at ways to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, including the possibility of invoking the Emergency Measures Act.
While Ottawa considers its options, Canadians have been debating what exactly constitutes non-essential travel and whether more restrictions are necessary or even legal.
CBC’s Cross-Canada Checkup radio program Sunday sought opinions from experts with different points of view of travel and members of the travel industry about what Canada should, or shouldn’t, do next.
Open Jaw President Nina Slawek was among those who appeared on the program. “My position is against a travel ban,” she told host Ian Hanomansing. “We want to limit spreading COVID, but there is absolutely no data to prove that travel is a super spreader. So much of this is based on assumptions and anecdotes.”
Slawek cited examples of COVID testing at Calgary and Vancouver airports that tracked as few as one per cent of travellers testing positive at YYC and none at all at YVR.
She also stressed that travel bans have had a tremendous negative impact, not just on airlines, but on the many ancillary businesses surrounding them and the travel industry as a whole.
“This is affecting people being able to feed their families,” said Slawek. “There are issues around bankruptcy for so many tour operators and yet the government is saying ‘don’t travel’. They’re not actually banning it, they’re saying ‘don’t, it’s not a good idea. But, travel, sorry, you take care of yourself, even though you’re bleeding like crazy’.”
One of the workers directly affected by the ongoing restrictions on travel is Dominic Lavoie. He is one of the thousands of flight attendants who have been laid off. He wouldn’t say whether he supports a non-essential travel ban, but said he thinks airlines are actually doing a good job of keeping passengers safe from COVID.
“As flight attendants, we’re all looking forward to seeing our passengers on board again. We want everything to go back to normal just like everybody else but that’s a decision that really has to be made by government officials, by health experts and by scientists.”
“I think that an airplane is basically one of the safest places you can be aside from being in your own home right now,” added Lavoie.
Simon Fraser University professor Kelley Lee, who is one of a team of international researchers who studied the effectiveness of travel bans during the early stages of the pandemic, also shared her thoughts with Cross-Canada Checkup listeners.
Lee said their research found that when it comes to travel bans, timing matters the most and those governments that acted quickly a year ago were more effective at limiting COVID spread. Early testing and quarantine measures also helped if they were enacted quickly.
Another important variable, said Lee, was geography. The size of a country and its location in the world and how many points of entry made a difference. It helped if the country was an island and she noted that Canada’s long borders and vast size make it more difficult to enact travel measures.
Lee also stated that “travel bans” and “border closures” were misleading terms as no nation has completely closed its borders or banned travel. Rather, the debate is over what is non-essential travel and what is essential, she said.
“I do think we need to get non-essential travel down to near zero at this time and the reason is that new variants are circulating globally,” said Lee. You can’t just restrict travel to where they are, they are global. There are many of them and they are circulating worldwide. We have a short time window to hopefully prevent them from coming into Canada. They are already here so we also have to look at domestic travel.”
One of the biggest arguments against travel restrictions is that they could violate Canada’s Charter of Rights which guarantee mobility of Canadians and the right to enter and leave the country, but Robert Leckie, the Dean of The Faculty of Law at McGill University, said constitutional rights are never absolute and we accept limits on rights and such limits are valid on rights if they’re reasonable and justifiable.
“The question here is whether a travel ban introduced by the government would be justifiable and reasonable and I think there’s a very good chance it could be,” Leckie told the CBC. “We’re living with all kinds of restrictions on rights of various kinds at the moment because of the pandemic and it could well be, given the urgency of the situation, that a travel ban could be reasonable.”
Where do you stand on the idea of increasing restrictions on non-essential travel now? Share your comments below.
Mark Stachiew Editor
Mark Stachiew is a Montreal-based travel journalist who’s been exploring and writing about the world for more than 30 years. When he’s not travelling somewhere or grappling with words on a page, he curates his own collection of travel gear.