Canada-U.S. families split by COVID-19 push for easing of border crossing restrictions for loved ones
Jaslyn DeClercq’s toddler has seen her father twice since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
DeClercq lives in Tillsonburg, Ont., with her five children. Her spouse, an American citizen, works full-time in Findlay, Ohio. He used up a year’s allotment of vacation time to visit, said Declercq — the quarantine period ate most of it up.
Now, their youngest is two-and-a-half years old. Often, DeClercq said her husband can’t bear to chat over video and see how much his daughter has grown in his absence.
“It destroys him,” she said.
DeClercq and her spouse are two of many Canadian and American citizens who have family across the border, and who, before COVID-19, were able to visit their family often without a hitch.
They’ve been rallying every Sunday for months now on either side of the border, in Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo.
Their ask is simple: to be considered essential alongside others who are allowed to cross the border with fewer restrictions, so that they don’t have to quarantine every time they visit loved ones.
With vaccination rates in both countries continuing to rise, the group is hopeful their pleas will finally be heard.
Canada’s side of the border closure was recently extended until June 21; these families are asking to be allowed across as of June 22.
Pickering resident June Morrison hasn’t seen her partner, who lives in Los Angeles, since December 2019.
The pandemic has been difficult on Morrison, who has been dealing with grief over the death of her father and other loved ones, and who lives alone.
Having recently received her second vaccine dose, Morrison is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to see her loved one in August.
“There’s nothing we can do but remain positive,” she said.
Sandy Pearce, a U.S. citizen who has lived as a permanent resident in Fort Erie for more than four decades, lives just a short drive across the border from her elderly parents, her father, her mother and her stepfather.
Though she’s been able to visit them a few times, quarantining each visit, she said her children and their children have been largely unable to see them.
In February, visiting got even more difficult, added Pearce, with new restrictions in place.
She is one of the people who started the Families Are Essential Facebook group, which includes both Canadians and Americans dealing with separation because of the border closures, and who have been organizing the rallies in Fort Erie and Buffalo.
“We’re not fighting for the border to be open. We just want to be with our families,” said Pearce.
Now that more and more people are getting their vaccines, Pearce said she doesn’t understand why families can’t be reunited without having to quarantine, which can be prohibitive for many.
Nick Dubanow, Fort Erie’s councillor for Ward 2, has shown up to most of the rallies since April and has been a vocal advocate on behalf of the divided families.
His ward covers the base of the Peace Bridge, where many Fort Erie residents crossed to visit their families in the United States before the pandemic, and vice versa.
Earlier in the pandemic, everyone understood the importance of keeping the border watertight, said Dubanow. But now, with vaccination rates rising in both countries, he’s hoping to see border restrictions on both sides change as of June 22.
“We need some movement, whether it’s an expansion of essential travellers to include families … whether it’s a broader opening,” Dubanow said, adding that he’s optimistic the U.S. will loosen restrictions soon.
“If we’re loosening restrictions on our side of the border, I’m confident the Americans will do the same thing.”
This weekend’s rally is particularly important given its timing, said Dubanow, noting that on the American side, congressman Chris Jacobs will be showing up in support.
“There’s a lot of support on the U.S. side to get a plan in place and move forward,” said Dubanow.
This week, congressman Brian Higgins and Canadian MPs Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Wayne Easter released a joint statement calling upon both governments to reopen the border to families that have been separated during the pandemic.
John Adams, a U.S. resident who owns a home on Vancouver Island, got involved with the Families Are Essential Facebook group by accident.
He had begun crowdfunding for advertisements to advocate for dual property owners like himself to be able to move across the border more freely. But as the movement grew, he realized most of the people campaigning for easier border crossings were families who had been split up by the pandemic.
So he joined forces with DeClercq, Morrison and Marcella Picone, launched cable ads in U.S. markets where the families were located, and is starting Canadian ads this week.
Adams said he has a more positive ad campaign ready to go, thanking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if he agrees to loosen border restrictions.
Though some politicians on both sides of the border have been supportive of the cause, Adams said he’s looking for action, not words.
Picone, who has been organizing the rallies on the U.S. side, said though she’s been lucky enough to visit her Canadian fiancé thanks to her flexible work situation, she knows many can’t say the same.
“The missed first steps, the missed first words, the dad that can’t go see his kid, the grandparents that haven’t seen their grandkids … all of that has been robbed.”
With vaccination rates going up, what Picone wants is simple: “Let us reunite without the quarantine,” she said. “We can do this safely.”