Last week, several media outlets reported that the federal government plans to relax public health restrictions for travellers on September 30th. This news came from multiple anonymous government sources, who stated that the expected changes will lift the vaccine requirement for international travellers, make the ArriveCan app optional, and eliminate random testing of fully vaccinated travellers upon arrival. The changes follow immense pressure on the government to relax measures by the Opposition Conservatives, Canadian and American politicians from border cities, the travel and tourism industry, and travellers themselves.
ArriveCan has been condemned for being inaccessible and ageist, falsely instructing users to quarantine when not necessary due to glitches, and imposing fines up to $5,000 for failure to or improper use of the app. While in alignment with the United States, the vaccine requirement for international travellers is not in line with other jurisdictions such as Australia and much of Europe. Finally, mandatory random testing was criticized for causing delays at airports, stressing out travellers, and falsely instructing travellers to quarantine.
While these changes are welcomed by the stakeholders mentioned above, the political factors and dynamics that led to this decision are worth navigating. Did other politicians or the industry play a part in this decision? If so, to what degree?
The Conservative Party of Canada has been very vocal about its opposition to travel restrictions. Conservative MPs have frequently brought up vaccine requirements and ArriveCan during Question Period. Transport Committee Vice-Chair, now CPC Deputy Leader Melissa Lantsman also put forward a motion to remove all COVID travel restrictions and newly-minted CPC leader Pierre Poilievre tabled a private member’s bill in June which would prohibit the imposition of vaccine mandates on federal public servants and travellers. Poilievre has been a staunch opponent of COVID-19-related measures, even running on the promise of lifting mandates during his race for CPC leadership.
The timing of the government’s decision has many CPC MPs attributing it to Poilievre’s recent win. This was alluded to in a statement released by the Conservatives on Wednesday, which noted that “days later, [the government has] also signalled that they will be ending the mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app.” This was reiterated by MP Marilyn Gladu, who was quoted as saying, “I think it might have something to do with the science changing Saturday night when Pierre [Poilievre] was coronated.” This assertion has been disputed by Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, who stated, “The measures that we put in place during COVID have nothing to do with the Conservative Party and leadership at that time, and nothing that they’re doing on their side affects how we’re governing, or the steps we’re taking to keep Canadians safe.”
Pressures on the government to lift restrictions have spanned partisan lines, with many border mayors and MPs signing an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden last Tuesday calling for an end to the border measures. The list of signees includes NDP MP Brian-Masse, who represents border riding Windsor West, as well as mayors from towns in six provinces and five states. Border town mayors, such as Jim Diodati from Niagara Falls, have seen a significant decline in tourism and revenue due to the measures still being in place.
Industry Pressures and a Chaotic Travel Season
Another group pushing for the removal of COVID-related travel measures is the travel and tourism industry, which has been struggling to rebuild following nearly two years of pandemic-related disruptions. Adding to this, the past summer was marked by chaos at the airports, with issues such as lost luggage, long lines, and flight delays and cancellations affecting many travellers.
The long waits in airports have been, in part, attributed to ArriveCan, with delays being caused by travellers who struggled or refused to use it. Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, however, defended ArriveCAN, stating that its use has made the process of entering Canada more efficient and prevented further delays at the border. ArriveCan alone cannot be blamed for the delays, with airports and airlines facing significant labour shortages.
Liberals’ Response and Future Developments
While the changes are expected to take place at the end of this week, Liberal Ministers have remained mum on whether they will go through. Prime Minister Trudeau gave no firm answers when questioned last Friday, declaring, “every step of the way through the pandemic, Canada has listened to science experts and taken our responsibilities extremely seriously to keep Canadians safe. I can assure you when we have an announcement to make, we will let the media know.”
Ministers Alghabra and Boissonnault also did not confirm when questioned, with the former saying on Wednesday that no final decision had been made and the latter stating, “we’re going to continue to make sure that as we open up the economy, we do so in a systematic and respectful way.”
It will be interesting to see how these developments proceed in the coming days, with many waiting in anticipation for official details to be released. It will also be interesting to see what narrative the general public adopts and whether any credit is given to politicians who have protested the restrictions and the travel and tourism industry.