COVID-19 has forced the near-shut down of the Canadian immigration system, disrupting thousands of lives, including that of John and Donna McCall, pictured in this family handout photo from last fall with their family. The McCall children, Ian (second from right) and Meghan (far left), are American and can’t come to Canada to help take care of their mother, whose health is failing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-McCall Family Mandatory Credit

COVID-19 has forced the near-shut down of the Canadian immigration system, disrupting thousands of lives, including that of John and Donna McCall, pictured in this family handout photo from last fall with their family. The McCall children, Ian (second from right) and Meghan (far left), are American and can’t come to Canada to help take care of their mother, whose health is failing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-McCall Family Mandatory Credit

Thousands of lives on hold as immigration system remains largely shut down

Thousands of families are separated amid travel and movement restrictions during the pandemic

John McCall’s great-grandfather was born in southern Ontario some 200 years ago, and ever since the descendents of his seven children, some living in Canada, some in the U.S, have criss-crossed the border with ease.

Until COVID-19.

John is American, his wife Donna is Canadian. They live now in Madoc, Ont., and Donna’s health is fading. Their American-born children are stuck in the U.S., unable to visit or help care for her due to bans on travel into Canada to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

So it hurts, John says, to watch the federal government swiftly decide whether professional athletes can come to Canada while the only answer to his pleas for compassion are an auto-response from bureaucrats and form letters from ministers.

“I don’t have a particular problem with the NHL or Major League Baseball, other than the fact that it does hurt to see those kinds of things take precedence over a life-and-death issue,” he said.

The McCall family is one of thousands separated, some by the Canada-U.S. border, others by oceans, due to the wide-ranging impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Canada’s immigration system.

The border closure is the dominant element keeping so many apart, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Thursday restrictions won’t lift soon.

“I understand how difficult it is to see these travel restrictions in place but Canadians understand that keeping our cities, our municipalities, our elders, our frontline workers safe by preventing international travel is a continued thing we need to do,” he said.

READ MORE: South Surrey man says he had no trouble entering U.S. to visit fiancée

Another question is how fast new immigrants will be able to get here once the borders do open.

Visa and biometrics collection offices around the world are closed, meaning would-be newcomers can’t be interviewed or submit the materials they need for their applications.

Even applications already in the queue are on hold. Where the Immigration Department used to post processing times, there is now just a message saying that due to COVID-19, it can’t.

Noor Ul Ain Mahmood has been waiting over a year for her application to sponsor her spouse to be approved. He is in Saudi Arabia, she in Oshawa, Ont., their plans for a future together on pause.

It’s not just that they are missing the chance to mark milestones together like birthdays or Eid, she said.

“The worst thing is we are under a global crisis right now, there is a pandemic, and we’re in isolation and we’ve been in isolation for so long,” she said.

“You always need your family to be able to go through something like that.”

The Liberals had planned to admit 341,000 new permanent residents this year.

As of the end of May, 84,275 had arrived, down from 125,870 by the same time last year.

The numbers this year compared to last are likely to drop further, as Canada typically welcomes more immigrants later in the year, said Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University who researches immigration.

There are two plausible scenarios, he said.

The first is the government rolls over the number of people it was willing to admit this year into next year, creating a double cohort.

The other is that the flow of people slows down as potential newcomers, particularly economic immigrants, choose other countries where the novel coronavirus is less prevalent. Given that so much of Canada’s economic growth is fuelled by migration, that is a worrying scenario, he said.

“The time to have been working on this was immediately back in March, and it cannot be postponed,” Ramos said.

“It’s going to require bold decisionmaking.”

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino declined an interview request. In a statement, his office said the government is doing its best to keep applications moving but the focus must remain on public health.

“The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented challenges at the border, and we know this has been a difficult time for families and others who are making their way through the immigration system,” the statement said.

Whether Canada will make more room for immigrants next year is a pressing question for refugee resettlement.

More than 10,000 refugees were caught in limbo when the world’s borders suddenly slammed shut in March, said Sabine Lehr, the program manager for private sponsorship of refugees at the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria in British Columbia.

All were already approved to come to Canada, but the flights organized by the International Organization for Migration were cancelled. Some were even turned back practically mid-air, she said.

Though urgent cases have been let in since, it’s completely unclear when the rest will be able to arrive, she said.

“Our concern is that the processing times will get longer if people cannot land,” she said.

“Obviously they will eventually land, but what it means is if the numbers don’t get increased for next year to account for this situation, we’ll be seeing longer processing times and that’s what nobody wants.”

The federal government has made some exceptions to existing travel restrictions.

In June, close family members of citizens or permanent residents were added to the list of those allowed into Canada, a move that came after very public pressure on the Liberals.

But the definition of close family didn’t include adult children. Mendicino’s office did not explain why.

That’s how McCall finds himself caring for his wife alone, his daughter in Wisconsin, his son in Illinois, unable to be with them.

Donna McCall has been in and out of hospital since February with a cascading series of problems that now have her on a liver-transplant list.

John’s voice breaks as he shares how his kids are ready to put their lives on hold to come to Canada at moment’s notice.

Among the arrangements: his daughter is married to a police officer and other officers’ wives have set up a system to help look after their three kids.

That so many pro sports players are being let in doesn’t bother him as much as the belief the government just doesn’t care about life-or-death situations, he said.

“It’s un-Canadian-like,” he said.

To let in NHL players, as well as the Toronto Blue Jays for spring training, the government had to grant them a waiver in the “national interest,” and if they can do that, they can figure out a better system for families, said David Poon.

The Regina doctor’s long-time partner is stuck in Ireland as they don’t qualify as common-law under the Immigration Department’s definition.

Poon has joined forces with families like McCall’s to try to convince the government to adopt a special COVID-19 immigration approach that would impose specific conditions on family members not currently covered by exemptions.

“We’re not asking for open borders,” Poon said.

“We’re just asking to be together.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusImmigration

Just Posted

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from St. Eugene’s residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

RCMP thanked the public for assistance in finding Benjamin Archie, last seen in Princeton. (RCMP)
Missing Chilliwack man found safe and sound

The 80-year-old had walked away from his home in Chilliwack

57-year-old Kathleen Richardson was discovered deceased in her home Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Her death is considered a homicide and connected to the slain brothers found on a Naramata forest road. (Submitted)
Naramata community in shock as condolences pour in for homicide victim Kathy Richardson

Richardson was well liked in the community, a volunteer firefighter with a home-based salon

Princeton GSAR responds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2020 the crew was called out 34 times, and members spent 721 hours on calls, and 683 hours training. Photo Princeton GSAR Facebook
Teen missing in Manning Park found after 24 hours

Young man spends night on mountain and survives with just a few scrapes

The RCMP are asking for assistance regarding the death of Kathleen Richardson of Naramata, pictured here. Her death is believed to be related to two homicides in Naramata in May. (RCMP)
Suspected Naramata homicide victim identified by police

57-year-old Kathleen Richardson was discovered deceased in her home Wednesday

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Carina Stokes, bar manager at Enderby’s Small Axe Bistro, was recognized as one of four exceptional B.C. restaurant workers by the British Columbia Restaurant and Foodservices Association Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Contributed)
Okanagan bar manager recognized as ‘stand-up’ B.C. restaurant worker

Small Axe Roadhouse’s Carina Stokes one of four to receive special recognition from the BCRFA

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Denmark soccer player Christian Eriksen collapses during game against Finland

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Most Read