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What It’s Like to Travel to Canada During a Cross-Border Closure

Seattle Vancouver Romance Narrative
by Sydney Baker Feb 5, 2021

BACK IN MARCH 2020, the world’s longest non-militarized border — the one between the United States and Canada — closed to all but citizens, residents, and those deemed “essential workers” (mainly commerce and health professionals). Initially, the border closed for 30 days. Then another 30 days. The pandemic continued to rage.

This has continued every month since, with the most recent announcement extending the closure until at least February 21st, 2021. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated it will remain shut until Covid-19 cases are under control in the US and has recently intensified testing and quarantine requirements for inbound travelers.

This ongoing closure has created much hardship for numerous families, including my own. About two years ago, a year into our relationship, my boyfriend moved from Montréal to Vancouver to be closer to me in Seattle. Up until last March, one of us crossed the border almost every weekend with little more required than our passports and answers to standard questions from border agents.

When the border closed, I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be for longer than 30 days — but I never dreamed it would drag on all the way into 2021.

Family member exemptions

In June 2020, Canada announced border closure exemptions for family members. Initially, a wave of relief washed over me, but after a closer read of the regulations, I realized our relationship did not qualify. Summer stretched on with the end of each month bringing more disappointment as border restrictions were prolonged. I tried to remain optimistic, kept busy with work, quarantine activities, and exercise. Looking back, I now realize how much of a coping mechanism that intense productivity mindset was for all of us — and for me, separated from my partner with no end in sight.

My boyfriend, also suffering from the circumstances, with no real ties or reason to stay in British Columbia now that we couldn’t see each other, decided to return home to Montréal. So, over Skype, with as much understanding as I could muster, I sent him off back east and tried to hold onto the shrinking sense of hope for a reunion before the end of the year.

Then in October 2020, long fought-for exemptions were announced for those classified as “extended family,” including couples in exclusive dating relationships like us. I was overcome with more joy than I’d felt in months. Finally there was a clear way for us to reunite.

However, crossing the border would be very different to what we’d become accustomed to. As an American who grew up in a border state during the era of passport-free travel, it was quite bizarre to suddenly have to request permission to enter a country that had always felt closer (both geographically and culturally) than many US states.

I couldn’t just rock up to the border with a passport and expect to be let in. Just like any extended family, we needed to follow the procedure detailed on Canada’s government travel exemptions webpage and request permission for me, the American, to enter the country.

It was overwhelming — even for someone such as myself, whose day job until recently involved a lot of immigration paperwork for international students. I nearly collapsed from frustration when the first few emails to the Canadian government bounced back due to oversized attachments. Every single step felt like a little victory. Even just getting an email to send.

Each day without a response seemed neverending, but I tried to stay positive and remember there was no reason to worry: I’d followed the required steps scrupulously and had no reason to believe there’d be an issue. But it was difficult to keep my anxiety in check while reading reports of families waiting a full calendar month or more for approval. I worried about putting all my eggs in one basket, having put in notice at work in hopes of a reunion in time for the holidays followed by an extended visit.

The stress I put myself through while doomscrolling others’ stories ended up being completely worthless as we received approval less than a week later. I cried in relief realizing my plan to fly on Christmas Day could go ahead. My heart goes out to families who had to suffer through similar uncertainty and pain for much longer.

Entering Canada

In preparation for my flight, I put together a “customs folder,” which included everything listed on the government exemption webpage, as well as any other documents I thought could support my story. This was just one of the many ways travel to Canada had changed over the course of the pandemic. The night before my flight an error message popped up on the check-in page, adding to my long list of concerns about traveling in the midst of a pandemic spike.

Luckily, it was a routine system flag for “non-Canadian passport holder.” At the very empty check-in counter at Sea-Tac, they asked to verify my “Canadian documents,” and I calmly presented my folder, with my approval letter from the Canadian government on top.

“Wow, you really prepared everything,” the desk agent nodded, impressed.

My organizational skills paid off. Travel to Canada remains extremely restricted, and I was asked for documentation at multiple points throughout the journey. The worst part was waiting on the first leg of my journey to Vancouver, half-convinced they’d turn me away at customs. I don’t think I’ve ever been worried about not being allowed in any country before, let alone Canada — a testament to the immense passport privilege us American passport holders used to have.

Upon arrival at Vancouver International, the surreal reality began to set in, as the mostly empty international terminal greeted us. My nerves kicked into overdrive at passport control, where my US passport was an immediate flag for the border officer.

I presented my folder which to my surprise she only briefly glanced at before sending me to baggage claim and customs, where they also only spent a few minutes examining my carefully curated documents. As I walked through the doors into arrivals, I couldn’t help but think, “is that it?” Surely any moment a border agent was going to pull me into a room for a full interrogation, before sending me back to Seattle.

Thankfully, that never happened.

After months of agonizing waits and panic-scouring the internet for how to best prepare for crossing the border, I caught my domestic connection to Montréal. I briefly wondered if I’d even recognize my boyfriend after months of only seeing each other through Skype.

Just like entering Canada, I needn’t have worried nearly as much as I did. As soon as I exited the airport, I was pulled into a hug in the freezing Montréal night.

Quarantine and beyond

I landed in Canada before the new quarantine requirements were put in place, so after gathering my bags, my boyfriend and I went straight home, where we stayed for 14 days.

To say it was a learning curve is an understatement. We’d never lived together and hadn’t seen each other for most of 2020. While we were beyond grateful to finally be together, two weeks in a one-bedroom is enough to drive the most in-love couple to get under each other’s skin. Luckily, most spats were overshadowed by our joy in reunification.

Since completing quarantine we’ve still been mostly stuck together 24/7 — in an often groundhog day pattern — thanks to Québec’s strict ongoing lockdown, with all but essential services closed and an 8pm curfew for the past few weeks. That’s completely fine with me. I didn’t come for sightseeing or a ski trip; I want this pandemic finished just like everyone else. So I’m happy to stay in every night with hot chocolate, Netflix, and my partner, something that seemed so impossible just a few weeks ago.

Despite our joy in being together again, we’re still very much unsure of the future. A lot of my friends and family viewed my decision to quit my job to stay in Canada for an indefinite amount of time as quite the leap of faith. I suppose that’s true, but anyone that’s spent time apart from family during this pandemic knows that there comes a point you’d do pretty much anything to be together again.

For now, I’m enjoying my first Québec winter, attempting to freelance full-time and making tentative plans to explore more of the province safely, as lockdown hopefully eases. This entire pandemic has tested our relationship, but in the end we’ve come out stronger — and while we don’t have a clear vision for the future, we absolutely have more faith in our relationship than ever before.

I often wonder if the exemption process I went through is indicative of what’s to come post-pandemic. The last major event that prompted a border closure between Canada and the US — although just for a couple of days — 9/11 brought to an end the era of document-free travel between the two countries and amped up border security and scrutiny. Only time will tell what the new rules will be. But for now, I’m going to enjoy quality time with my partner, something I’ll never take for granted again.

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