Sarah Brewer, a resident of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and her fiancé, Alex Ashmore, a resident of Machias. The couple has only managed to meet twice since the start of the pandemic, with Brewer having to take a complex series of flights to reunite. Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Brewer

Jim Desjardins and Sylvie Corriveau have been in a relationship for more than two years, and live just across the St. John River from each other. Yet they haven’t been able to meet in person for about 10 months. The problem is the border.

The United States and Canada effectively shut down all travel across the world’s longest international border on March 21 in a move unprecedented in the history of the two nations. It abruptly ended a long practice of openness and freedom of movement between the two countries, splitting up families, friends and people in cross-border relationships.

Canada began making exemptions to its border policies as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched into months, though people still must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Canada has expanded these policies recently to include more extended family, and people who are shown to be in committed romantic relationships.

But the process is difficult. In order for U.S. citizens to visit loved ones in Canada, they must fill out immigration paperwork that is reviewed by Canada, and then they are allowed or denied entry. Once in Canada, they must commit to the 14-day quarantine, and stay at least one additional day beyond the quarantine period.

For Desjardins to cross into New Brunswick, he and Corriveau had to fill out a three-page application form and submit it to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Canadian government’s department usually responsible for immigration issues.

The application included personal information and Social Security numbers, along with scanned passports and a purpose of travel statement that the couple has been in a relationship for at least a year. The documents were then notarized and sent to the IRCC to be processed.

So far, Desjardins of Fort Kent and Corriveau of Clair, New Brunswick, have applied three times to the IRCC to allow them to reunite, and have been rejected every time. Desjardins was simply told his application was not complete for statutory declaration, but he was not told what needs to be corrected in order for it to be  considered complete. 

“The Canadian government claims they made the exception, but they’re not really living up to it,” Desjardins said. “It’s just very frustrating.”

“I told him, ‘Don’t get your expectations too high because you’ll be disappointed,’” Corriveau said. “But you know, I don’t find it fair because you have people crossing every day for work and they’re higher risk than Jim is. It’s a little bit like discrimination, I think.”

Even those who manage to reunite report having difficulties. Sarah Brewer, who lives in the border town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, has twice been able to reunite with her fiancé Alex Ashmore, who lives in the nearby Washington County town of Machias, most recently for Thanksgiving. But instead of the usual hour-long drive it takes to go between the two places, Brewer had to take a complex series of flights both times in order to arrive in Maine.

“I flew from St. John to Montreal, then from Montreal over to Boston, and then I flew from Boston up to Bar Harbor,” Brewer said. “It’s very expensive.”

She knows she’s one of the lucky ones, as she has managed to reunite with Ashmore for a brief period, but the long months of separation have still taken a mental toll, Brewer said.

“Unless a person is in our exact shoes, there’s no way to understand what it’s like to be forcefully separated from your loved one,” she said. “I’ve spent countless nights crying for hours, not seeing any end to this and having no idea when I’ll lay eyes on him again.”

Shannon Ker, a communications adviser for IRCC, said that the authorizations for entry into Canada can be difficult for some, but are necessary to prevent more deaths from the pandemic.

“These processes are in place to save lives,” Ker said. “The restrictions have helped to stem the spread of the pandemic, and to protect the health and safety of Canadians and those traveling to Canada.”

The frustrations involved with the reuniting of couples demonstrates both the stark differences in policy the two countries have taken in response to the pandemic, and how many of those policies have fallen short.

Desjardins blames leaders on both sides of the border for failing to react properly to the pandemic. The widespread disinformation, culture of fear and politicization of the virus on the U.S. side have contributed to a bungled response to the pandemic, including in border policy, he said.

“One side was crazy to the point where they didn’t even acknowledge it was real, and one side was so scared, like everybody hide under your bed,” he said. “I’ve had safety training of all kinds, and the first thing that comes out of any instructor’s mouth is ‘stay calm’. That’s always key, because you’re always going to make better decisions.”

But while President Donald Trump has continued to steal headlines with the downplaying of the virus and the scandals surrounding his inner circle, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also been at the center of controversy during the pandemic. Trudeau faced an ethics investigation over the summer after the government’s decision to award $43.5 million in Canadian dollars to a Canadian charity that paid Trudeau’s family members exorbitant speaking fees.

“He’s getting popularity and credit for his response to the pandemic, but it’s also distracting people from the scandal,” Desjardins said.

The difference between the two countries’ policies on paid time off also affected prospects of reuniting, Brewer said. Unlike in Canada, where employers are guaranteed at least two weeks of paid vacation per year, the United States has no mandatory time off policy.

That means for many Americans trying to enter into Canada, the mandatory 14-day quarantine period can mean they are unable to take off the amount of time needed for visiting their loved ones.

“There are some jobs in the U.S. that don’t have the type of benefits like we do here in Canada,” Brewer said. “Even if a couple is separate and they’re married, if they can’t do that 14 days, then they still can’t come over — even if they have approval from the IRCC.”

Desjardins is now seeking out a Canadian immigration lawyer if a fourth application is not successful. But with cases rising again in both New Brunswick and Maine, and vaccinations still months away for many people, the couple is not optimistic about being able to reunite anytime soon.

“I try to be a tough guy most of my life, so you don’t really want to be a whiner or a complainer,” Desjardins said. “But it is tough being separated for 10 months going on a year now.”

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