Critics say Canada’s suspension of flights to the Caribbean and Mexico disproportionately affects those with family there, and continues to give a free pass to snowbirds flying into Florida and other U.S. destinations.
The federal government has said the travel freeze is meant to stem non-essential travel to spring break hotspots and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.
“It should be all international travel. Why are we specifically targeting the Caribbean and Mexico?” Andria Barrett, a diversity and inclusion consultant with Jamaican roots, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“One person’s ‘sun destination’ is another person’s home, that’s where their family is from. It’s not about lying on the beach and drinking a margarita,” she said, adding that she feels snowbirds going to Florida haven’t been hit with a similar travel clampdown.
Instead, she said, “if we’re consistent for the rules and messaging for everyone, regardless of income and where you’re going, I think that’s fine. One rule for everybody.”
On Sunday, four of Canada’s major airlines suspended service to Mexico and the Caribbean, days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Air Transat had voluntarily agreed to suspend flights there in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
However, during a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday, a Ministry of Transport spokesperson assured families affected that “there is still an avenue open for flights into those countries through the U.S.”
The Canada travel freeze, which the Mexican government said could cost their country’s economy $782 million, will be in place until April 30.
Emails to the Canadian Snowbird Association were not returned before publication.
Barrett, who has relatives in Jamaica, explained that many Jamaican Canadians travel to the island nation for essential purposes, not vacations.
“They’re not going to a resort, they’re taking care of business or supporting family there. I understand what we’re [Canada] is trying to do but we need to be consistent,” she said.
She explained people might have needed to fly back for emergencies or to bring supplies, food, clothing and other essential items to older family members who might not otherwise be able to get them easily.
But because of the ban, flying direct from Canada to Jamaica isn’t an option right now.
A health care worker carries a stack of clipboards at a COVID-19 testing site sponsored by Community Heath of South Florida at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Clinica Campesina Health Center, during the coronavirus pandemic, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Homestead, Fla. (AP / Lynne Sladky)
Barett also pointed out that if the goal is to stem the spread of the coronavirus among Canadians, it seems not all hotspots are being targetted the same. According to the World Health Organization, as of Wednesday, in total, Jamaica has had 15,000 COVID-19 cases and Trinidad and Tobago had 7,500 cases, but in Florida, where Canadians can still travel to freely by air, there have been 1.3 million COVID-19 cases.
“If Jamaica is a sun destination, then Florida is a sun destination,” she said, adding she doesn’t believe the ban was “done maliciously but people making these decisions are not supporting families in the Caribbean or Mexico.”
Barrett instead would support a full ban on foreign travel, a sentiment that’s echoed by Isabel Inclan, the editor-in-chief at the Latinx newspaper Correo Canadiense, which has been reporting on Mexico-Canada relations for close to 20 years.
“I think if Canadians want to go to beach destinations [and] there’s now a ban against Mexico, they’ll probably try to fly to another place. So the problem is not resolved,” she said.
Inclan, who is well-connected with Mexican communities in both Mexico and in Canada, said she understands why the ban was put in place but that “it’s not fair because if Canada wants to put bans on huge Canadian destinations, then it should have included Florida.”
MINISTRY SAYS TRAVEL STILL POSSIBLE THROUGH U.S.
When it came to accusations that Canadians with businesses or families in Mexico and the Caribbean are disproportionately affected by the suspension, a Ministry of Transport spokesperson explained the flights freeze only affects Canadian carriers.
“Canadians can still take flights to the U.S. and then connect, in the U.S, to those locations,” Amy Butcher, director of communications and parliamentary affairs to the Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday.
She also pushed back against calls for a full ban on foreign travel, calling such a move “detrimental.” Butcher explained “the reality is that people and things still need to fly. We have an important supply-chain management relationship with the U.S and other parts of the world.”
And when it comes to snowbirds’ ability to fly directly to Florida, Butcher said, “we’re not in a position to ban people from travelling to a specific U.S. city [or state].”
She explained that while the bilateral agreement between the two countries bans most Americans from flying into Canada –with some exceptions, including if they have immediate family in Canada — that action on the U.S. side is not reciprocated.
Butcher did note Public Affairs Minister Bill Blair “is working with his U.S. counterpart to address some of these gaps as a way to strengthen our collective border measures.”
“As the minister has said before, these are tough decisions to make because we know this impacts people,” Butcher said. “We know it impacts families. It means more sacrificing but it’s guided by public health advice.”
A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
But Barrett and other critics said this travel ban seems to mostly inconvenience racialized groups and creates two tiers of restrictions.
Rachel Décoste, a Black Ottawa-based writer, educator and immigration policy expert with ties to Jamaica, said Jamaicans are now lumped with vacationers in a “baby with the bathwater” situation.
“Maybe that’s where I’ve grown up… maybe, I still consider it home. Maybe I’m retired,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Monday. She said instead of a travel ban, she suggested the government could have perhaps given travel exemptions to those with Jamaican passports.
According to 2016 census data from Statistics Canada, approximately 70 per cent of the more than 1 million Black Canadians are of Caribbean descent.
And Décoste felt it was myopic and a “colonial way of thinking” to only see Caribbean destinations in the context of spring breakers and vacationers, but not take into consideration people with family who live in places such as Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.
BLACK, LATINX PEOPLE ‘BEAR THE BRUNT’
According to one study published in 2006, 94 per cent of all snowbirds in Florida, which include travellers coming from Canada and other parts of U.S., were white — with Canadians accounting for 8.4 per cent of all snowbirds in the state.
Décoste said it’s difficult to ignore that snowbirds, who are primarily white and can afford a second home in Florida, are not affected by any travel ban, even though the Canadian government has suggested people avoid non-essential travel.
“The rich white people can go to Florida and do their snowbirding but who can’t do that as of today? People of Caribbean descent,” Décoste said.
However, she did note there were barriers for Canadian travellers, including a 14-day quarantine for those returning from other countries and the recently-introduced rule that will require anyone flying into Canada to isolate in a hotel for three days while awaiting COVID-19 test results at their own expense.
But Décoste argued that beyond those measures, people are free to travel and potentially visit other countries or their place of origin, as long as it’s not in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Décoste pushed back against the Ministry of Transport suggesting travellers can still fly from the U.S., saying it puts them more at risk of being exposed to COVID-19. On Tuesday, the seven-day average of new cases in the U.S. was more than 146,000.
“And that’s not fair to have us bear the most negative brunt of their policy and you might need to go back to the drawing board to make policies that are equally affecting everybody, not just Black people,” she said.
Barrett echoed those sentiments and said unless there’s some sort of stronger ban, snowbirds will continue to travel to places like Florida and potentially skip the queue to get vaccinated.
“Because if you can, you will.”