A new study that looks back on the first and second waves of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 says that travel restrictions barring entry to Canada did drastically reduce the number of COVID-19 cases entering the country.
However, researchers say, it still wasn’t enough to stop new outbreaks.
In the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal eLife on Tuesday, researchers with the University of British Columbia looked at public data on viral genome sequences collected in 2020 and early 2021 to find the geographic source of specific chains of COVID-19 transmission.
They found that four weeks after Canada restricted entry from most foreign nationals in March 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases crossing the border into the country had dropped 10-fold.
“COVID-19 importations were accelerating in the lead up to March 2020 but experienced a sharp and drastic decline after travel restrictions were put in place,” Angela McLaughlin, a PhD candidate in bioinformatics at UBC and the study’s lead author, said in a press release.
“The data shows that federal travel restrictions can be effective in reducing viral importations when implemented rapidly.”
But COVID-19 was already here, and travel restrictions couldn’t stop that.
The spring and summer of 2020 saw daily case levels at one of their lowest nationally, but circulation was still occurring within the country, the study outlined, with specific chains of transmission persisting into the fall of 2020.
As travel restrictions eased in November 2020, allowing more entrance into the country as well as shortened quarantine requirements, the international importation of COVID-19 cases rebounded.
Variants of concern, beginning with the Alpha variant, began to make their way into Canada. Researchers estimated 30 unique genetic sublineages of the Alpha variant, also known as B.1.1.7, had entered the country by the end of February 2021.
Numerous factors, such as the state of the global fight against COVID-19, including the emergence of these variants elsewhere in the world, make it harder for travel restrictions to have an impact later on in the pandemic, researchers said.
“Travel restrictions have a diminishing return if domestic transmission is high, if highly transmissible variants become widespread globally, or if there are many individuals exempt from travel restrictions and quarantine without access to rapid testing,” says McLaughlin.
On March 21, 2020, in response to the pandemic, the U.S. and Canada mutually closed the border to recreational travel after having already shut its borders to most non-citizens looking to enter the country.
Within a month after these restrictions, researchers found that importations of COVID-19 declined from 58.5 sublineages of the virus on average per week to just 10.3-fold lower within four weeks.
There were still “newly seeded sublineages” over the summer of 2020 as domestic transmission continued. Travel restrictions were relaxed slightly in the fall, although the U.S. land border did not re-open to non-essential travel until August 2021.
During the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, 49 per cent of viral importations of COVID-19 into Canada likely came from the U.S., the study found, entering primarily through Quebec and Ontario.
The U.S. was still the biggest international source of COVID-19 for Canada in the second wave, according to the data, at 43 per cent. Cases from India made up 16 per cent of those that came from outside of the country in the second wave, while cases from the U.K. made up seven per cent.
If restrictions had been kept at their maximum for longer, they could’ve held off more transmission, researchers posited, but this would’ve come with consequences in other areas.
“The social and economic repercussions of travel restrictions must be weighed relative to the risk of unhampered viral importations, which have the potential to overburden the health-care system,” Mclaughlin said.
“We are now in the era of infectious disease,” Dr. Jeffrey B. Joy, an assistant professor at UBC’s department of medicine and the study’s senior author, said in the release. “This study highlights the increasing importance of genomic epidemiology, enabled by sharing of genomic sequence data, in informing and evaluating public health policy to combat current and future viral outbreaks threatening society.”
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Danielle Smith: Facts about Alberta’s new premier, United Conservative Party leader
CALGARY — Former journalist and business owner Danielle Smith won the United Conservative Party’s leadership race on Thursday and, in doing so, becomes Alberta’s next premier. Here are some facts about Smith:
Born: April 1, 1971 in Calgary.
Family: She is married to David Moretta and has a stepson.
Before politics: Smith graduated with degrees in economics and English from the University of Calgary. She was a trustee for the Calgary Board of Education. She wrote editorials with the Calgary Herald and hosted a current affairs TV show called “Global Sunday.” She was a provincial director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. She and her husband now own and operate The Dining Car restaurant in High River.
Politics: In 2009, she won the leadership of the Wildrose Alliance, later to become the Wildrose Party. In the 2012 provincial election, Smith won a seat in the constituency of Highwood and the party took over official Opposition status from the Liberals, In 2014, she led eight Wildrose members across the floor to join the governing Progressive Conservatives. After much backlash, she lost in the 2015 election.
Quote: “After everything I’ve done in the past to divide the movement, then try to bring it together the wrong way, I feel like I owe it to the conservative movement to do what I can to be a force of unity.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Iran flight relatives say Canada a haven for regime officials
OTTAWA — Relatives of those killed when Iran’s military shot down Flight PS752 in January 2020 say Canada has become a safe haven for regime officials.
“Canada has become a safe haven for the criminals of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hamed Esmaeilion testified Thursday afternoon to the House justice committee.
Esmaeilion leads a group representing grieving families, many of whom are aware of numerous people who have worked for the regime, or are related to senior officials, moving freely in Canada.
“This is a big concern for Iranian people,” he said.
Amid a brutal crackdown on women’s and human rights protesters across Iran, the federal Liberals are facing mounting pressure to deem a section of Iran’s army as a terrorist group.
That has coincided with the 1,000-day anniversary of the downing of Flight PS752 near Tehran, which killed 176 people, most of whom were headed through Ukraine to Canada.
No one has been held accountable.
Esmaeilion chalked that up to a naive bureaucracy that sees Iran as a normal country.
“It’s mainly the legal teams or the advisers; they still believe in negotiation with Iran because they don’t see Iran, or the Iranian regime, as a Mafia group,” he said.
“If you change your mindset, that you’re not negotiating with Switzerland or a democratic country, then it would solve the problem.”
He said he’s told officials that Canadians would never play a hockey game with North Korea, and yet Canada’s national men’s soccer team was scheduled to play with Iran back in June, before Canada Soccer cancelled amid political pushback.
Esmaeilion said he’s certain people affiliated with Tehran have been responsible for slashing his tires and making phone calls he found threatening.
The RCMP has previously said it is “aware of reports relating to victims experiencing threats, harassment and intimidation.”
And while the Liberals have said they updated their sanctions list Monday based on impact from Esmaeilion’s group, he said there were many more officials that relatives suggested months ago.
“I’m shocked that I don’t see (Supreme Leader) Ali Khamenei on the list,” he said, adding that President Ebrahim Raisi and former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif should be listed.
He also called out Iran’s delegate for the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, saying Farhad Parvaresh should be kicked out of Canada.
This week, a crowd of Iranian Canadians took to Parliament Hill, demanding Ottawa deem the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.
Experts have said that such a change would be hard to enforce, given that Iran has conscripted millions into the force’s non-combat roles. A terror listing compels Ottawa to freeze assets held inside Canada and deny entry into the country.
Esmaeilion said that is a serious concern, and there may be as many as 15,000 people already living in Canada in that situation. But he said their military documents clearly state whether they had a senior rank and if they had joined the IRGC by choice.
“We can exempt those people. We have talked to several lawyers, and this is a simple solution for putting the IRGC on the list.”
He also reiterated calls to hold responsible those in charge of the downing of the flight that killed his wife and daughter. Esmaeilion’s group wants Canada to refer the case to the ICAO and the International Criminal Court.
“So far, after 1,000 days, we have no road map; we have no time frame,” he said.
In a Wednesday interview, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Canada wants to see justice for the victims of Flight PS752, but must exhaust all avenues with Iran before any international tribunal will take on the case.
“The process is painful, it’s long, it’s cumbersome, it’s complicated,” he said.
“These international bodies are flawed, they’re imperfect, but they are our best way to hold Iran accountable.”
Alghabra said Canada has been helping lead reforms that aim to prevent another catastrophe, such as the Safer Skies initiative. The idea is to have a global body assess when conflict makes it unsafe for civilian flights, and advise companies and states to not take off.
The flight Iran shot down took off hours into a military operation in response to the U.S. assassination of senior Iranian military official Qasem Soleimani.
“PS752 should not have been flying when there was a conflict nearby,” Alghabra said.
– With files from Caitlin Yardley in Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press
Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, explained – CTV News
The Supreme Court of Canada will take time to weigh arguments about the constitutionality of an 18-year refugee agreement between Ottawa and Washington after hearing a challenge Thursday from claimants and human rights advocates.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) allows Canada to turn away asylum seekers seeking entry from the U.S. at official land border crossings.
However, human rights groups say the U.S. is not a “safe country” for asylum seekers and the pact allows Canada to skirt its international obligations for refugee claimants.
CTVNews.ca breaks down what the agreement entails.
WHAT DOES THE STCA DO?
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement was signed in 2002 and came into effect in 2004. Under the agreement, those seeking refugee status in either Canada or the U.S. must make their claim in the first country they enter.
That means most asylum seekers who attempt to cross into Canada at an official crossing are turned away and are told they need to make their asylum claim in the U.S., and vice versa. The only exemptions apply to unaccompanied minors and those with close family members living in Canada.
“If one of those narrow exemptions does not apply, you’re not able to make a claim for refugee protection in Canada. And so what that means is that you’re ordered to be removed or deported, and they contact U.S. authorities,” Amnesty International’s Julia Sande told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.
But the agreement has one key loophole: it only applies to official land border crossings. That means that asylum seekers who manage to make a refugee claim within Canada while bypassing an official border crossing won’t be sent back to the U.S.
This has prompted tens of thousands of asylum seekers to enter Canada at irregular crossings, such as Roxham Road, a rural road that goes through the border between Quebec and New York State.
HOW MANY ASYLUM SEEKERS HAVE CROSSED IRREGULARLY?
Since February 2017, Canada has seen 67,805 irregular crossers enter the country. Of these, 28,332 (41 per cent) have had their refugee claims approved. In addition, 19,646 refugee claims have been rejected, 13,369 are still pending and the rest have either been withdrawn or abandoned, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB).
Irregular crossings into Canada surged after Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2017, as concerns grew over his anti-immigration rhetoric and executive orders limiting the number of refugees admitted.
According to data from the IRB, the number of irregular crossings peaked between July and September 2017. During this time period, 8,558 asylum seekers irregularly crossed into Canada, corresponding to an average of 2,853 per month.
The average number of irregular crossers per month dipped after that and hovered between 1,200 and 1,400 from late 2018 to early 2020. However, irregular crossings came to a near screeching halt after COVID-19 restrictions at the border were put in place in March 2020 and asylum seekers were sent back to the U.S. unless they met one of the exemptions.
In November 2021, as Canada continued lifting COVID-19 measures at the border, irregular crossers were once again allowed to enter the country and make a claim. Between April and June 2022, 4,512 irregular crossers entered Canada — the most seen since 2019, according to the IRB.
WHAT DO OPPONENTS OF THE STCA SAY?
In 2017, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the Canadian Council of Churches launched a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The organizations say the legislation underpinning the STCA violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees life, liberty and security of the person, in addition to Section 15, which guarantees equal protection and benefit under the law.
Sande says asylum seekers who are turned back from Canada often face immigration detention in the U.S.
“When people are in detention, they’re subjected to solitary confinement, staggering rates of sexual violence, really inhumane conditions, not given religiously appropriate food,” she said. “The detention in itself is problematic and harmful. But in addition, when you’re in detention, it’s a lot more difficult to access counsel.”
Sande says the increased difficulty accessing legal counsel means asylum seekers have a higher chance of being deported. On top of that, she said crossing the border at irregular crossings can come with serious risks.
Many of these crossers use Roxham Road, where the RCMP have set up a presence to handle the high volume of asylum seekers. But at other parts of the border, some asylum seekers have made long journeys on foot through empty farm fields in the winter, risking frostbite.
“We’ve heard of people losing fingers from frostbite and really putting themselves at risk. And so I would say it’s neither compassionate nor orderly,” Sande said.
Canada is also subject to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that states cannot return refugees to dangerous countries. The human rights groups argue the pact lets Canada “contract out” its international obligations to refugee claimants without proper followup the U.S. is doing the job.
In July 2020, the Federal Court agreed, and ruled the Safe Third Country Agreement was unconstitutional. The federal government appealed the ruling and last December, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case.
WHAT HAVE FEDERAL PARTIES SAID?
The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois have long called on the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, and allow asylum seekers to cross into Canada at official crossings so they won’t have to make potentially dangerous journeys through irregular crossings.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives say the STCA should be strengthened to allow Canada to send irregular crossers back to the U.S.
The three opposition parties recently signed a letter calling for an inquiry looking at how public funds were used to build intake facilities at the border near Roxham Road.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada “works with the U.S. government every day to improve the Safe Third Country Agreement.” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told CTV’s Your Morning the agreement “has served Canada well” and is necessary to ensure that the border “remains well-managed.”
“Canada believes that the STCA remains a comprehensive means for the compassionate, fair and orderly handling of asylum claims in our two countries,” IRCC said in an email statement.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault has also called on the feds to close the unofficial Roxham Road crossing and said his government does not have the capacity to deal with the influx of people. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Thursday the government is working “very carefully with Quebec” to manage the flow of asylum seekers.
“We transfer significant federal funds to that province every year to help with ensuring that there is due process, that there… is a baseline of support for people who are filing claims,” he told reporters before a cabinet meeting in Ottawa.
“We have to reach agreements, with partnerships with the United States, with Quebec, and that’s exactly what the federal government will do,” he added in French.
With files from The Canadian Press
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