With #CancelCanadaDay trending across the country, Canucks from coast to coast to coast are sharing their reasons for not celebrating the nation’s birthday this July 1.
For me, my bold statement in the title of this column relates to the treatment of Canadians arriving home from international travel. I was bullied, intimidated and harassed at the airport for not submitting to Canada’s controversial mandatory hotel quarantine.
My disgust comes from the treatment I experienced in the past few weeks. Overall, does Canada have its share of problems? Sure. Am I leading the chant, “Down with Canada” this year? No. I’m using this as an opportunity to express why my country has disappointed me.
You’ll recall the Trudeau government implemented strict policies that saw air travellers essentially detained upon their arrival in Canada. When the mandatory quarantine program began, there were reports of people being taken away in vehicles, not told where they were going and refused contact with loved ones. Yes, in Canada. Well, you know what, that’s not MY Canada.
Upon my return to the country from a work trip a few weeks ago, I worried if I’d completed (most of) the necessary steps to come home. I paid C$300 for a Canadian-government-approved COVID test in Nashville. I registered on the Government of Canada website with my flight information. And I knowingly had not booked my mandatory three-night stay at the government-authorized detention centre (aka, hotel quarantine).
My reason was this: There have been outbreaks and violence in the hotels and I felt safer going to my own house where I could quarantine without any exposure to a virus that could kill me or someone that could hurt me. Pretty simple, right?
Several weeks ago, I wrote in this column that I would take the fine and return home to Manitoba on my own terms. And I did. I was issued a fine for over $6,200 at the Toronto airport. I was one of several people lined up to take the punishment – with no intent to pay it.
You see, the hour and a half of, well, all those things I just listed – bullying, intimidation, harassment – made us feel less than Canadian. In fact, it made us feel less than human. By the sounds of it, people were taking the fine based solely on principle. And I fully agreed with them. And I gladly took it, too.
You’ve heard the stories when people were taken to unidentified facilities and refused access to phones and other technology to communicate with loved ones. You think the stories are exaggerated and that Canada would never treat people like that. I can’t speak to the claims in those media reports, but I can confirm my time at the Toronto airport was unlike any I’d ever experienced before – and I travel a lot.
In preparation for my trip, I’d been successfully brainwashed into thinking I would contract COVID-19 during my business travel and I would come home infected. Really. The fear was instilled in me and the paranoia set in. I believed I’d get it by going on an airplane. I was certain I’d get it from a crowd of people in a public building. Every time I was tested, I thought for sure I had it. All the while, I never had one symptom and showed no signs of being infected — not to mention all of my negative test results. But the fear was there and the damage was done.
At the end of the day, I need to work to support myself and, as they say, “Ya do what ya gotta do.” So, I did. I went to Nashville to do my job. For most people, a work trip wouldn’t make financial sense because of the added hurdles. Testing alone cost nearly $500 ($177 in Winnipeg to fly to the U.S., and $300 in Nashville to return to Canada). Partner that with upwards of $2,000 for a mandatory hotel stay and there’s no reason to do your job. It’s a contradiction of sorts: The government wants people to get back to work but it doesn’t make financial sense to do your job if it requires travel, as mine does. Fortunately, I make a lot of money in radio syndication so it was worth it for me.
My work concluded in Nashville and I braced myself for drama upon arrival at the Toronto airport. Normally, I could fly from Nashville to Chicago to Winnipeg but remember the government stopped international flights arriving in Winnipeg so I had to add an extra flight to Toronto for an interrogation.
Everything seemed normal when I deplaned and arrived in the customs area. I provided to the officer my documents which included my pre-flight COVID test results and my receipt that I had registered on the Government of Canada’s website to return home. The agent asked for my hotel confirmation but I said I didn’t have one. A sticker was put on my passport and I was sent on my way. That’s when it all started.
The sticker attracted the attention of an airport employee on the other side of the wicket and I was directed into a dark, windowless room where police officers mingled about and red-smocked government employees booked passengers into quarantine hotels. At the time, there were two people causing a ruckus and refusing to be subjected to lock-up. Police were called over to speak to one man. He was taken aside and I never saw him again.
Two men behind me – one said he didn’t have a credit card; the other saying his wife would make the reservation for him – both got hassled by the clipboard-wielding workers. Opinions were vocalized throughout the growing crowd of passengers: This is stupid. So ridiculous. Such bullshit.
Admittedly, most of us knew the policies and procedures but opted for the fine, though it didn’t seem that was good enough for the snotty staff. Yes, I’m editorializing but, damn, they had attitude.
Passengers were cautioned about speaking to each other, signage indicated cellphone use was prohibited – and they even had the nerve to post a sign about being respectful to staff. All the while, staff took their time processing fines or helping people get booked. Regularly, the staff would congregate behind the counter and seemingly whisper and talk about the passengers. At one point, an agent was having a difficult time so her co-worker went over to the police and “called in the muscle,” laughing that it wasn’t for her but for her struggling colleague. Officers approached a man in the doorway who was on the verge of a meltdown and they ushered him away.
I asked, “Is it going to be much longer?” The employee snapped back, “It’s a process, sir. It’s going to take some time.” The lack of urgency by the staff is what prompted my question as they talked with each other, typed on their computers, checked their phones, talked again, briefly looked at the computer again. I sensed they had the attitude of, “You’re not going anywhere any time soon so what’s the hurry?”
When it was my turn at the counter, I said I’d take the fine and be on my way. That moment triggered the agent’s attitude and it was on. It. Was. On.
“So, you feel that flying to Winnipeg is safer than going to a quarantine hotel? Did you know that over 5,000 people have been in the hotels and the majority haven’t got sick? You know that the fine will be over $6,000 today and potentially $6,000 per day for the next three days? And if you plan to fight it with a lawyer, you will both have to fly to Toronto because that’s where the court is, and you’ll have to pay for hotels and legal fees. You’re aware this one ticket will cost you over $40,000? And the airline won’t let you fly because your passport is marked and you must wait for your test results for up to three days. What are you going to do for three days? Stay at the airport? Sleep on the street? That’s just stupid. So, when you get home, what are you going to do for food? Do you have fresh food at home? You know you can’t leave your house for 14 days, right? They’ll be checking on you so you better be home if they ring the bell and you better answer if they call you.” And on and on. (These aren’t direct quotes but it’s a summary of what she said to me.) Do you have fresh food at home? Seriously.
Every time she threw another fact or statement at me, I responded politely with either, “Yes, I understand” or “Can I have my ticket please?” Never did I raise my voice and never was I disrespectful. All the while, she continued to berate me. She was armed with every rebuttal and clearly had her wording down from conducting interrogations every day.
In a way, I compare it to “No means no” – meaning, I said multiple times that I understood what was being asked and when I refused she wouldn’t let it go. She continued hammering at me. That goes from informing someone to harassing them. She wouldn’t let up. She wouldn’t just give me the ticket and send me on my way.
And, sure, perhaps you could argue that I was engaging in illegal behaviour by not following the Quarantine Act, but the reality is I had been tested three times in less than a week and didn’t trust the government hotels that had highly publicized outbreaks.
Moreover, when it made international headlines that professional athletes weren’t subject to hotel quarantine and that Prime Minister Trudeau – the man behind these lock-ups – opted for Ottawa after his G7 Summit, it was even more reason for me to call my own shots when it came to my personal health and safety.
I offered to quarantine at a Toronto hotel of my choosing or even upon arrival in Winnipeg, but that wasn’t good enough and I was fined, anyway.
(If there’s audio or video surveillance of this interaction at the airport, I implore the government to review and dispute any falsehoods of this account. If I were lying or fabricating, I wouldn’t go public and tell the authorities to put my story under the microscope. This is how confident I am in telling my truth.)
When I finally was released with my green ticket, I went for airport COVID testing. During a time when gathering is discouraged, they sure do make you spend a lot of time in crowds at the airport. Lineups weren’t physically distanced and I was handed a tablet to register for testing but it wasn’t wiped down after the previous corralled passenger used it. Good to see they don’t have to follow sanitation and distancing rules on federal grounds. (Again, airport security camera footage during my visit will prove this.)
Each time I was stopped at a checkpoint, and several times in between, I was asked for my passport, my boarding pass or to show the sticker the first agent attached to my passport. (Once I knew what the sticker meant, I casually peeled it off and threw it out.) I showed my passport to no fewer than nine people in the hour and a half of Toronto torment.
In the end, the scare tactics didn’t work because the airline had no issue rebooking me for travel hours later, security didn’t stop me at the gate and I flew to Winnipeg the same day.
As I waited for my flight, I was emotionally exhausted. I zoned out several times. I was stunned. It was shocking. The whole ordeal felt like I was in another country. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before. For me, it was somewhat intimidating, but imagine for someone who’s older, or new to the country, or whose first language isn’t English – they’d have been scared shitless. It’s just not right.
That night, I arrived home quite late. It was barely two hours after landing – at 12:03 a.m. – that I got an email with my negative test results. Damn, that was fast. It wasn’t even 12 hours from the time I tested at the airport to receiving the outcome. Did I mention it was my third negative test in six days?
Once I got home, I was paranoid that I was being watched. Remember, the agent said it would be like a Santa Claus situation: Knowing if I’m sleeping, knowing if I’m awake, knowing if I’ve been bad or good…
I couldn’t sleep the first night. I had no appetite the next day. I ordered greasy junk food after my stomach grumbled but I just couldn’t eat. Comfort foods had no effect. My dogs were uneasy sensing something was wrong. It truly was like being a prisoner in my own home. I was on house arrest. What for? Travelling to do my job.
There were times when I turned off my phone because I thought the government was tracking my whereabouts. I admit that I violated quarantine several times to get exercise and walk my dogs. I justify that by saying I didn’t pass anybody any time so I was not a danger to the public. I kept to myself in an empty park and didn’t spread the virus that I didn’t have to the people I didn’t encounter. Did I go to a packed mall or cough on people in a restaurant? Of course not. I broke quarantine to get fresh air and exercise my dogs. If the government has a problem with that, well, fuck them.
During my two-week quarantine, none of the scare tactics came to fruition. I hadn’t received any identified calls to check on my house detainment. One day I received four “Unknown Number” calls but a message was never left so I’m not sure if it was Big Brother checking on me. The times I was home, nobody rung the doorbell to see if I was around. When I returned home following a brief escape, I was cautious as I walked up my street to see if cars were parked in front of my house or if someone was on my front stairs. Every time, the coast was clear.
I didn’t understand these touchpoints because my excuses would be reasonable: I don’t answer calls from unknown numbers, my phone was off, I was on another call, I was sleeping, I was in the shower. Simple. What’s my crime? Failure to answer a call? Doorbell ignoring? I shouldn’t say that ‘cause the ticket’s probably in the mail. I don’t even jump to answer calls from my mother, let alone a government that bullied, harassed and intimidated me. Ain’t gonna scare me into complying with your rules that doctors and other experts have been contradicting for months.
We’ve heard that the hotel quarantine policy is arbitrary and discriminatory. I was targeted because I flew to Canada and because I travelled through Toronto. There have been news reports saying that if I travelled through Calgary or Montreal I wouldn’t have been roughed up and could’ve carried about my travels since Alberta and Quebec never adopted the federal Contraventions Act. Must I do that though? Must I book alternate travel to sidestep a government policy? Sounds like it. And I wouldn’t be the only one because everyone knows about the tens of thousands of people crossing the border by land so as to avoid hotel quarantine.
Here’s another way to look at it: Imagine going to a Pride festival and being handed an AIDS test because you were around gay people. There’s absolutely nothing indicating you got AIDS during your time there but you’re targeted because you happened to be around gay folks. That would be grossly homophobic and discriminatory.
Or how about going to a college party and on the way out all the women are handed a pregnancy test – and forced to take it because they were around men for a brief time?
Yes, these are extreme examples but they outline how people are guilty, or in this case, infected, by association. Somehow, it’s OK to assume travellers have coronavirus and are bringing it back to their country because of reckless behaviour. That just doesn’t jive. And the stats prove it.
My issue isn’t with the hotel quarantine policy. Sure, I disagree with it, as most do. My concern is the treatment that I received upon my return to Canada. Bullying, intimidation and harassment at the hands of our government won’t be tolerated by me, nor should it by anybody.
Oh yeah, and Happy Canada Day.