Since Canada has had a vaccine requirement for travellers for almost two months, air passengers may presume everyone over 12 on their flight is fully vaccinated.
But that’s not necessarily the case, as some travellers, such as Canadians flying home from abroad, are exempt from the vaccine requirement.
Here’s how the regulations work and why some unvaccinated travellers can still board flights.
Exceptions to the rule
Since Nov. 30, travellers ages 12 years plus four months and older must show proof they’re fully vaccinated to board passenger flights, trains and cruise ships in Canada.
The federal government introduced the vaccine requirement to help boost vaccination rates and curb the spread of COVID-19.
However, the requirement doesn’t apply to everyone. Unvaccinated foreigners in Canada can board a flight departing the country until Feb. 28. And some unvaccinated foreign nationals can still enter Canada, such as new permanent residents and those visiting for compassionate reasons.
If they have the cash, unvaccinated Canadians can still fly out of Canada on private planes, as long as those on board don’t require access to restricted areas at commercial airports.
Canadians returning home are also exempt from the vaccine requirement. That means unvaccinated travellers who left the country before the vaccine requirement kicked in, or who departed in a private plane can still re-enter via a commercial flight — as long as they comply with pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirements.
“Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and persons registered under the Indian Act have the right of entry to Canada, and as such, can enter Canada whether vaccinated or not,” said Transport Canada spokesperson, Sau Sau Liu, in an email.
A ‘fundamental human right’
Kerri Froc, a constitutional law expert, said Canadians’ right of entry is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“You have the right to come into Canada if you’re a citizen because [the charter] is basically trying to not have a situation where someone is stateless,” said Froc, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
“It’s a very fundamental human right.”
However, she said the government can, within reason, make returning home more difficult for unvaccinated travellers. Currently, those travellers face stricter entry requirements: they must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival, self-isolate for 14 days, and take a second test while in quarantine.
Between Nov. 28 and Jan. 8, 109,290 government-funded arrival tests were completed on partially or unvaccinated air passengers entering Canada, according to the latest government data. That total includes children over the age of four and foreign nationals.
The charter also says that Canadians have the right to leave Canada.
On Wednesday, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed a lawsuit in Federal Court, arguing Canada’s vaccine requirement for air passengers is unconstitutional because, in part, it hinders mobility rights.
“It is profoundly disturbing that a marginalized group in Canada — the unvaccinated — are essentially prohibited from leaving the country,” said Keith Wilson, lead counsel for the legal challenge, in a statement.
Transport Canada declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, in response to a separate inquiry, spokesperson Liu said Canadians’ charter rights “are carefully considered” when implementing COVID-19 measures and that “the measures imposed are consistent with the charter.”
Unvaccinated Canadians can still travel by car, but they likely won’t get very far if they try to cross the border. The United States requires foreign travellers entering by both land and air to be fully vaccinated.
‘I didn’t have much choice’
Although unvaccinated Canadians have the right to enter Canada, once they arrive, they’re prohibited from taking a connecting flight or train to another Canadian city. They can still travel home in a vehicle, but that option may not be feasible for people who live in remote communities.
Danya Kendell of Corner Brook, Nfld., flew to Denmark to visit her fiancé on Oct. 10 for a three-month visit.
Kendell said she was unvaccinated for personal reasons when she travelled to Denmark, and had no concerns about re-entering Canada in January.
“They can’t really refuse you entry into Canada and I knew that.”
However, after leaving Canada, Kendall soon discovered that she’d be barred from taking her connecting flight home from Toronto to Deer Lake, Nfld.
“I was pretty freaked out,” she said. ‘If you live on the East Coast of the country, if you’re flying internationally, you have to either land or exit through Montreal or Toronto.”
Kendell said driving from Toronto to Corner Brook — which is more than 2,000 kilometres and includes a ferry ride — just wasn’t feasible. Faced with limited options, she said she decided to get vaccinated in Denmark and managed to qualify as fully vaccinated before her flight home.
“It got to the point where I didn’t have much choice.”