A pregnant Canadian woman is urging the federal government to rethink its pandemic travel rules, to allow her to return to the country to access medical care without leaving her soon-to-be adopted Haitian children behind.
The situation is urgent — in just two weeks, Sarah Wallace will be too far along in her pregnancy for major airlines to allow her to fly.
Wallace, a midwife, is originally from Devon, a town west of Edmonton in central Alberta, but has lived in Haiti for the better part of 12 years.
Wallace founded a non-profit in the country, Olive Tree Projects, which aims to support maternal and infant health by providing care, nutrition and education.
She had hoped to return to Canada earlier in her pregnancy. First, paperwork delays in Haiti slowed the process, and then she was told by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that her Haitian children can’t return to Canada with her because their adoptions aren’t finalized.
While that normally wouldn’t prevent them from travelling to the country, under Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions, the children don’t qualify as immediate family members.
Wallace’s case has attracted the interest of Conservative MP Dane Lloyd (Sturgeon River-Parkland), who has contacted Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office asking that an exception be made so Wallace can obtain the visas she needs for her kids so they can fly back to Canada with her.
“In every moral sense, they are the dependent children of the Wallace family,” Lloyd said. “They’ve been caring for them since they were infants, they’re orphans, so the idea that this legal definition of dependent children is getting in the way of these children coming to Canada … is ludicrous.”
Adoption process started in 2017
Wallace and her husband, Jean Pierre Valteau, never planned on adopting a child in Haiti, because she knows it can be a long and difficult process.
That changed when an infant who was abandoned, malnourished and HIV-positive showed up at a local hospital. It became clear to Wallace that there was no plan for the child’s care.
“I suggested to [the hospital administrator] that I take the baby for a while, just get him healthy a little bit, and then that gives social services time to find a permanent home for him,” she said.
After months of caring for the infant, Jean-Moise, she realized she couldn’t part ways with him, and began the adoption process in 2017. “I just couldn’t bring myself to place him in an orphanage.”
The same year, she gave birth to a biological son, and their family seemed complete. Then, in 2018, social service workers dropped off a newborn girl who had been left in a cement bag at a construction site at Wallace’s non-profit.
Soon, she was beginning the adoption process for that little girl, too — Eva-Maria.
Process ongoing for 2 years
Wallace and Valteau are legal guardians of the two Haitian children, now aged two and four, and have been working steadily to formalize their adoptions for the last two years.
Over that time, Wallace says conditions have worsened in Haiti, from decreased access to medical care and electricity to increased violence and kidnappings in the region.
Last year, she began applying for passports for the children so the family could return to Canada.
“Of course, trying to get any document in Haiti takes a long time. And then especially during a pandemic, with offices being closed. One specific office closed for two weeks because they had had an outbreak — and one of the guys that had been helping with getting our documents had passed away. And so we are kind of back to zero,” she said.
Wallace has obtained passports for the children but their adoptions aren’t finalized.
She is now also seven months pregnant, and due to medical concerns hopes to give birth in Canada.
“The [Haitian] hospital that I ended up having an emergency C-section at in 2017 was closed overnight because there was no diesel available … we didn’t get city power for weeks. And so I thought, well, what’s going to happen if I do have an emergency again, and even all the private hospitals are closed overnight?” she said.
Wallace applied for visas for her children, and was feeling hopeful about returning before she’ll be too far along in her pregnancy to fly. The last day she can fly is Sept. 15.
“I was feeling very hopeful about getting our visas approved, not even considering that we weren’t eligible based on [COVID-19 travel restrictions], because when I look at the current exemptions, it says immediate family, and that includes dependents. I just assumed that we were eligible,” she said.
But when she received the response from IRCC, her heart sank.
It stated that because her children are not yet fully adopted, “your family relationship does not qualify as per the definition of immediate family members.”
IRCC says adoption must be final
CBC News has reached out to the immigration minister’s office, and has yet to receive a response.
In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for IRCC said, “We understand that cases like these are complex and challenging for the families and individuals involved.”
“In this case, the officer reviewing [the] request for exemption from the COVID-19 travel restrictions was not satisfied that the definition of a family member was met.”
The IRCC said that for international adoptions, the process must be complete in the child’s home country before the immigration process to Canada can proceed.
Another factor is that Canada is a signatory to the Hague Adoption Convention, which binds participating countries to established international adoptions standards to prevent child trafficking.
But under non-pandemic circumstances, Wallace would be able to obtain visas for the children as their legal guardian.
Patricia Bailey, Wallace’s mother, said she’s made a full-time job of writing emails to advocate for her daughter and grandchildren. She’s also started a petition that has garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
“[The letter of denial] was shocking and just so disheartening … we’re fighting now not just for them to get their visas but actually for the government to change what an immediate family member under COVID-19 rules [is],” Bailey said.
Exemptions available for others
Bailey was especially frustrated to learn that under the current restrictions, exemptions are available for guardians of foreign nationals residing in Canada — but not for foreign wards of Canadian citizens.
Bailey has been corresponding with Lloyd, the MP. She was finally able to meet with him last week, which brought some relief. Lloyd said the meeting with Wallace’s mom was emotional.
“As someone who just had my first daughter three months ago, I can empathize with her concerns,” he said.
“I want to assure the family that my staff and I are doing everything we can to get them back to Canada and if it was up to me, they’d have their visas today.”
Lloyd said as the pandemic continues, it’s time to re-evaluate these rules, which were implemented in haste earlier this year, to ensure best practices are in place in the future.
“There’s other families going through this as well … as long as COVID-19 is continuing to exist, and as long as these restrictions are continuing to exist, we’re seeing so many families in so many different situations negatively impacted,” Lloyd said.
“We’re not just saying, ‘Let’s open the borders and pretend COVID-19 isn’t there’ … Let’s be flexible with the rules to ensure people can be reunited with their families.”