The Movement of People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World

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Photograph of a person wearing a mask in a train or air terminal.

28 October 2021, 8:22 a.m.

Disponible en français.

In March 2020, the Government of Canada announced measures restricting the entry into Canada of visitors and other temporary residents, as well as some Canadian citizens and permanent residents, in an effort to contain COVID-19. Since then, a series of government orders has limited travel through land border crossings and travel by air and in Canadian waters.

The current restrictions at Canada’s borders are detailed in three orders in council, one each that governs quarantine measures, people entering from the United States and people entering from other countries. All three orders in council are valid until 21 November 2021. In addition, Interim order No. 42 under the Aeronautics Act (valid from 19 October 2021 to 2 November 2021) sets out what airline personnel and passengers must do before boarding a flight to Canada, for example, wear a mask and take a pre-boarding COVID‑19 molecular test. Any passenger who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will be denied boarding, regardless of nationality.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which facilitates the movement of goods and people in and out of the country, is responsible for implementing these measures. To ensure that travellers can provide their mandatory travel information, which includes pre-arrival test results and proof of vaccination, before and after their entry into Canada, the CBSA and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) have launched the ArriveCAN application.

This HillNote examines the measures that affect the movement of people in and out of Canada at this point in the pandemic.

Persons who can enter Canada

As of 9 August 2021 for foreign nationals from the U.S., and as of 7 September 2021 for all other foreign nationals, travellers may come to Canada for any reason, if they are fully vaccinated. Persons who are not fully vaccinated can only travel for a non-discretionary purpose and must quarantine for 14 days after they arrive in Canada. Exceptions exist, notably on compassionate grounds, for those who do not meet the entry requirements.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Canada–U.S. land border has remained open to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, persons registered under the Indian Act, foreign nationals who have already been recognized as persons in need of protection in Canada and certain persons allowed to make claims for refugee protection. Persons who can make a refugee claim at a designated port of entry are a stateless person, a foreign national who has a family member in Canada or who faces the death penalty in their country of origin, a U.S. citizen and a person of public interest.

For travellers flying to Canada, arrivals are restricted to ten airports: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montréal, Québec, Halifax and two in Toronto. A mandatory vaccine requirement will be in place for travellers who board a train or aircraft in Canada starting 30 October 2021.

On 29 August 2021, the Government of Canada suspended direct flights from Morocco until 29 October 2021. During that period, passengers who travel to Canada indirectly from Morocco will need to provide proof of negative pre-departure COVID-19 molecular test results from a third country before continuing their journey to Canada. Canada also suspended direct flights from Pakistan and India in April 2021, but it lifted the restrictions on 21 June 2021 and 26 September 2021, respectively.

Measures to mitigate risks to public health

Since March 2020, under the Quarantine Act, the norm has been to wear a non-medical mask, and it has been mandatory to quarantine upon arrival in Canada. While non-medical masks remain the norm for all travellers, a mandatory quarantine is now only required by those who are not fully vaccinated or who test positive for COVID‑19 upon arriving in Canada. Unvaccinated children younger than 12 years of age who enter Canada with their fully vaccinated parents or caregivers are not required to quarantine. However, they must limit contact with others, particularly people 65 years of age or older, and they must not attend large crowded settings, like a school or sporting event, for 14 days. They must also be tested using COVID-19 molecular tests, as instructed, unless they have tested positive for COVID-19 in the 14 to 180 days prior to arriving in Canada or they are under 5 years of age.

All travellers, including those who do not have to quarantine, must have a quarantine plan that provides details like where the person intends to self-isolate and what provisions they have made to eat for 14 days in case they are required to quarantine upon arrival by PHAC agents. Federal quarantine facilities are available when the CBSA and PHAC deem the quarantine plan inadequate and self-isolation necessary because the passenger has COVID-19 symptoms on arrival.

When COVID-19 variants started emerging in early January 2021, the government began requiring pre-arrival molecular COVID-19 testing. In February 2021, testing became necessary upon entry into Canada. While the negative results of a pre-arrival COVID-19 molecular test remains mandatory for all travellers into Canada, unvaccinated travellers must complete one molecular test on their first day in Canada and another on the eighth day after their arrival.

Moreover, the CBSA conducts mandatory randomized arrival testing for COVID-19 upon entry into Canada by air and at land border crossings. Selected travellers must take the arrival test as directed within 24 hours of entering Canada, but they do not need to quarantine while waiting for their results. They can continue travelling to their final destination, which includes taking connecting flights. Fully vaccinated travellers are not exempt from this mandatory randomized arrival testing.

Persons entering Canadian waters

To ensure the health and safety of coastal communities and transportation workers, two interim orders prohibiting non-essential navigation in Canadian waters were issued. Passenger vessels carrying more than 12 people and pleasure crafts other than those used by local communities are prohibited from entering Arctic waters until 28 February 2022, unless they have written authorization from the Minister of Transport. Beginning on 1 November 2021, passenger vessels, such as cruise ships, may enter Canadian waters (other than Arctic waters), provided that operators “fully comply with public health requirements.”

Starting on 30 October 2021, all passengers on non-essential passenger vessels, such as cruise ships, who are travelling for 24 hours or more must be fully vaccinated; limited exceptions exist for individuals who are medically unable to receive a vaccine and for emergency travel. However, the federal government has outlined accommodations for travellers from small remote communities, especially Indigenous communities, “to ensure they will be able to travel to obtain essential services in support of their medical, health, or social well-being, and return safely to their homes.” Marine operators with Canadian vessels that operate with 12 or more crew are required to establish vaccination policies for their organizations by 30 October 2021.

Additional Resources

Sonya Norris and Isabelle Brideau, “Federal Authorities During Public Health Emergencies,” HillNotes, Library of Parliament,16 July 2020.

Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, “The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and COVID-19,” HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 15 February 2021.

Government of Canada, COVID-19: Summary data about travellers, testing and compliance.

United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing US–Canada and Mexico Land Borders for Non-Essential Purposes.

Authors: Julie Béchard and Madalina Chesoi, Library of Parliament

Categories: Business, industry and trade, COVID-19, Health and safety

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