OTTAWA — Canada's door to the world edged open on Monday as the government announced new flights to repatriate stranded travellers abroad, but it was clear that door will soon slam shut, leaving many with no apparent options for coming home.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced multiple new flights to bring stranded Canadians home from North Africa, Europe and Latin America due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stranded Canadian travellers have been issuing desperate pleas over social media as they have been caught behind borders sealed in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Despite the new flights, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said in an interview with CBC radio that it won't be possible for the government to repatriate all Canadians stranded abroad. Champagne offered insights into the unprecedented international horse-trading he has been undertaking with foreign governments to negotiate landing rights, among other things.
The prime minister also struck a stark tone, suggesting the sudden provision of new flights should not be interpreted as any kind of a new normal. He urged Canadians abroad to keep pursuing their own flight options, and to register with the government so they can receive proper updates.
"You need to do this if you haven't done it already," Trudeau said Monday in his daily press conference outside his Rideau Cottage residence in Ottawa.
"For Canadians stranded abroad, we're working with airlines to get people home. People should be returning by commercial means while they're still available."
Meanwhile, Air Canada, Air Transat, WestJet and Sunwing airlines all have flights planned this week, Trudeau said.
That will include three new Air Canada flights to bring Canadians back from Peru, which has otherwise closed its airspace, he said.
Two more Air Canada flights are to reach Canadians in Morocco in the coming days, he said. Global Affairs Canada said in a statement after Trudeau spoke that the first of those flights was scheduled to depart on Monday.
Global Affairs said it would continue to support the country's airlines in their efforts to repatriate Canadians.
"In the past week WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing brought home tens of thousands of Canadians from around the world, with more flights on their way," the department said in its statement.
Global Affairs said an Air Canada flight to Spain is being planned. "Further work is being co-ordinated with Air Transat," the department said, for two flights to Honduras and one each to Ecuador, El Salvador and Guatemala.
If any of the returning Canadians are expecting a warm embrace from a loved one or a quick trip to the grocery store to stock up before heading into self-isolation, Health Minister Patty Hajdu offered this firm reality check: forget it.
"When people are coming back after international travel it is essential that they don't stop for groceries, that they don't visit their friends or family on the way home — that they're not stopping anywhere but going directly home and doing so safely," Hajdu told a briefing on Monday.
"What we're finding is that some people obviously don't have private transportation from the airport when they're returning, and so we're looking at measures we can put into place to make sure that they are not unwittingly coming into close contact with other people like taxi drivers or other public-transportation riders."
She said the details on how that would happen were still a work in progress, but that it was essential. Paraphrasing her cabinet colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Hajdu said: "sometimes we are making decisions and planning the details afterwards."
In his interview with CBC's The Current, Champagne also acknowledged the challenges the government is facing in trying to bring home stranded Canadians in the face of unprecedented circumstances — airport and airspace closures, border closures and the fact some countries have imposed martial law.
"Considering the number of Canadians abroad, considering that we're facing very unusual and exceptional circumstances — this is a world crisis — there will indeed be Canadians who won't be able to return home, and we'll do our best to support them where they are."
Global Affairs said in its follow-up statement that it is ready to provide consular services "to the extent possible, while respecting the decisions of local health authorities as they manage this public health emergency. Some limitations may be in effect in some areas of the world."
The department said it is trying to help as many Canadians get home as possible, "but some may remain outside of the country for an indeterminate amount of time."
It offered this advice to Canadians abroad:
—Monitor local media and follow instructions from local authorities
—Read the Global Affairs' travel advice and advisories for up-to-date information on the current situation in the country
—Check with health insurers to find out more about their policies related to COVID-19, including whether travellers are covered for medical treatment if they become infected or for extended stays outside of Canada
—Contact Global Affairs' emergency centre in Ottawa at +1-613-996-8885 (collect calls accepted where available) or by email at email@example.com if emergency consular assistance is needed.
Champagne told the CBC that Global Affairs Canada had received 10,000 calls and 14,000 emails in the 48 hours leading up to Monday morning.
The government is negotiating an "aerial bridge" with Britain and France, and working in Latin America and Asia to help travellers find safe passage back to Canada, he said.
Champagne said he had to negotiate into Sunday's late hours to gain air access to Peru despite the fact the country is closed, and it is controlled by the military.
"My job is to negotiate on a case-by-case basis where we have a cluster of Canadians, and where Canadians can gather in one place," he said.
"Sometime, getting the plane is Step 1, and the easiest one. Then it's to make sure we land there, make sure we can have safe passage for our crew, safe passage for Canadians who want to return home."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press