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How will Canada’s tight travel restrictions impact the return of McGill’s international students?

International students delay travel plans as they fear Quebec’s surge in COVID cases

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada has implemented many travel bans, travel-based restrictions, and travel advisories to contain the spread of the virus. With the Omicron variant causing cases to surge, McGill’s students are left feeling anxious about their return to campus, as in-person classes are scheduled to start January 24. International students in particular face unique difficulties crossing the border due to Canada’s COVID-related requirements.

Since December 15, Canada has set a non-essential travel advisory for travel outside of the country. In other words, the government discourages travelling outside Canada for non-essential purposes, but it does not ban this type of travel. As McGill’s winter break began December 21, shortly after the advisory was released, many international students followed through with their travel plans to return home. Quebec implemented a lockdown beginning on December 26, and added further restrictions on December 31. The lockdown prompted the closure of all schools, restaurants, and bars, while a curfew of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. was imposed, among other restrictions. Despite the end of the curfew on January 17, 5,400 new COVID cases in Quebec were reported that same day, leaving students abroad to anxiously await what it will be like to return to Montreal.

McGill international student Adam Nsouli is currently at home in Dubai and has already delayed his return to campus by two and a half weeks. When asked about his concerns returning to Canada, Nsouli answered: “I’m concerned about whether I need to quarantine upon arrival, as there doesn’t seem to be one definitive answer on whether I need to do so or not.”

At the Canadian border, travellers may be selected for randomized testing. For those selected for this arrival-testing, travellers who have only been in the U.S and Canada in the past 14 days are exempt from quarantine while waiting for test results. However, if a traveller who has been outside the U.S. or Canada in the last 14 days is randomly selected for testing, they are not exempt and must quarantine until they receive a negative test result. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 15 to 180 days are not required to test upon arrival. The government advises that air-travellers pre-register for their potential arrival testing in order to speed up the process.

All travellers entering Canada that do not possess Canadian citizenship and are above the age of five must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – currently, a third dose of the vaccine is not required to be considered fully vaccinated. Proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within the past 72 hours must also be provided. If a traveller is entering the country via flight, they must present proof of a molecular test taken within 72 hours of their flight departure. For non-air travellers, the test must have been taken within 72 hours prior to their arrival time at the border. Proof of a previous positive test result taken within the 15 to 180-day threshold is also accepted in lieu of the negative test result. As for proof of vaccination, travellers are required to upload their vaccination information via the ArriveCAN form. This form requires basic information about the traveller, their travel document (i.e. passport), previous location and destination, COVID-19 symptoms, and a plan to quarantine in case of positive results. The form is required upon entry at the border and can be filled out on the ArriveCAN app. 

If the traveller is unable to present proof of a valid COVID-19 negative test result, they may face difficulties getting through the border. For a Canadian citizen, they will be allowed entry, but may be subjected to a fine of up to $5000 or face criminal prosecution. Travellers lacking the negative test result may also be required to go to a designated quarantine facility if they are symptomatic and do not have a quarantine plan. Non-Canadian citizens who do not have proof of a negative test result – or a positive result from the past 15 to 180 days – or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, will be denied entry. For travellers unsure if they will successfully be able to enter or return to Canada, they can find out by answering a few questions on the government’s travel webpage.

At customs in the Montreal YUL airport, international travellers are first required to show their ArriveCAN receipt before proceeding to wait in line to use the kiosks. At the kiosks, travellers are required to enter in further information about their travels and get their photo taken. After receiving a receipt from the kiosk, travellers will once again wait in line until directed to a border agent who will confirm their travel details, quarantine plans, and ask other possible questions before determining whether they will be allowed entry. 

These travel measures have been in place since before the spread of the Omicron variant, but the increased cases, hospitalizations, and the lockdown in Quebec puts new pressure on the measures in place in terms of preventing new cases from entering the country.

Some students have already successfully gotten across the border and have been attending online classes in Montreal these past few weeks. Loane Nguyen, a McGill international student, had previously delayed her arrival back to campus from France, but has since returned to campus. She said, “I extended my flight by a week (from January 1 to January 8) after hearing about the latest [student residence] restrictions on top of Quebec’s [restrictions].” Nguyen explained that COVID-related restrictions while she was in France in late December were relatively loose. Nguyen said, “My family was able to visit other family members around France. We made sure to test ourselves via auto rapid tests every two days though. In the end, increasingly more people around me got COVID so it made me want to leave France before potentially catching it.” When asked about her experience at the Canadian border, she explained that the process was long due to her being selected for COVID testing. She added, “the nasal test was poorly done because they barely swabbed my nostril.” Since Nguyen was travelling from France, she had to quarantine for a day while she waited for her negative test result. McGill boasts over 30 per cent of its student population, or about 10,000 students, being international. As these students come back before the start of in-person classes, they will have to fulfill the necessary requirements to cross into Canada. These measures aim to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant as students return to campus before January 24.