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Student visa limbo leaves thousands unable to start school in Canada – CBC.ca

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Gustavo Camelo is one of thousands of international students stuck in limbo, ready to start college or university but missing one thing — a Canadian student visa.

The delays in documentation are due to travel restrictions brought in to protect Canadians from the spread of COVID-19. A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the ministry is trying to smooth the process and reduce delays for international students.

International education as a sector contributes $21 billion a year to the Canadian economy.

Camelo completed his undergraduate degree at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and was all set to start his masters degree in chemistry at the University of Victoria this month.

He and his partner rented a $1,800-a-month Victoria apartment and couldn’t wait for September. 

But then came COVID-19. The border closed and new rules came into play for student visas as of March 18.

Even international students approved before March are not automatically allowed to travel to Canada. Foreign nationals with a valid study permit or letter of introduction dated before March 18 may still be denied entry if their reason for travelling is deemed “discretionary.”

Students must prove it’s necessary for their program for them to be on campus.

Approved for online studies

When Camelo applied on May 15, he said he faced a 27-week wait for processing. So far he has only been approved to begin studies online, but he said he needs to be on campus to do research in order to complete the program. He said if he doesn’t get to Victoria soon, he could lose his spot in the program. 

IRCC confirmed there are delays and, right now, restrictions are not being eased — that will depend on how well the virus is contained.

“In regards to processing times, COVID-19 has meant significant challenges continue to affect processing timelines and we are doing our best within existing limitations. Because there are so many different variables involved, we are unable to provide specific timelines at this time,” a spokesperson said Monday in an email.

The University of Victoria campus is a dream right now for some international students who can’t get their student visa approved. (Twitter/@UVicLib)

“It’s very stressful. It’s hard to have your plans frustrated,” Camelo said in a phone interview from the U.K., where he and his dual-citizen partner, Tom Crocker, are waiting for word from Canada.

In July, the pair spent thousands of dollars on flights from Brazil and Canada to meet up in London, as the U.K. was one of the only places they could get in and face only a 14-day quarantine.

They had been separated since December 2019 and the border restrictions kept being extended.

“The U.K. is the only country that has its borders open for anyone,” said Crocker.

After reuniting at an Airbnb in London, where they quarantined for 14 days, the couple are staying with Crocker’s family near Dorchester until they can finally move back to B.C., where Camelo’s British-born partner has lived for a decade.

Camelo said he has about a month before he loses his spot in the UVic program, despite his acceptance and the fact that he’s paid his tuition.

“I can lose the offer for sure. The university is expecting me to get there in a month or so. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen,” he said.

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Canada's transport regulator hasn't settled a single COVID-19 flight cancellation complaint – CBC.ca

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The Canadian Transportation Agency has failed to settle a single complaint from Canadians demanding refunds for cancelled flights since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CBC News has learned. 

The independent tribunal said it has been inundated with close to 10,000 complaints from mid-March, when global air travel largely ground to a halt, until Oct. 16. 

The agency confirmed it’s still processing complaints it received before March 11; it has yet to deal with any cases filed during the public health crisis.

For months, Canada’s Transport Minister has told Canadians if they are unsatisfied with refunds, the course of action is to file complaints with the tribunal.

Carly Aubertin and her husband Rob McLean are upset that they filed a complaint in April, which has been sitting in limbo ever since.

“It’s just so disheartening,” said Aubertin. “It’s frustrating that the government’s not there to support us.” 

The Ontario residents are considering selling their home as they wrestle with living off a single income because the pandemic has hurt McLean’s business. Sunwing gave them a voucher for a cancelled trip to Antigua due to COVID, rather than a full refund that could help pay their mortgage until the spring.

 “Right now, I mean, $5,000? There’s five months of mortgage right there,” she said.

Long backlog before pandemic started

The delay is partially due to a two-year backlog of complaints the CTA received before the pandemic struck. The backlog is tied to a significant influx of complaints received after new air passenger protection regulations came into effect in December 2019.

COVID-19 hampered further efforts to process complaints; the CTA temporarily paused its discussions with airlines regarding “dispute resolution activities” until June 30, 2020 to allow airlines to focus on more urgent matters. The agency also granted airlines an extension until Oct. 28 to respond to passengers seeking compensation.

But the CTA says it’s making progress on tackling the caseload. The agency processed a record number of complaints in the past fiscal year. The administrative tribunal also received a funding boost to get through cases more quickly and says it’s weeks away from starting on complaints filed during the pandemic.

WATCH | Thousands of Canadian travellers are waiting for flight refunds:

CBC News has learned that despite receiving thousands of complaints from travellers looking for refunds for flights cancelled due to COVID-19, the Canadian Transportation Agency has not settled a single one. 1:59

An ongoing battle for closure

The agency said it’s now working through about 17,300 complaints. 

Those includes complaints from Canadians like Aubertin and McLean, who spent about $5,000 for a spring vacation with a group of friends to celebrate some of their 40th and 50th birthdays.

McLean found himself without work during the pandemic, meaning the Port Robinson, Ont., couple has started to dip into their retirement savings. His last pay cheque was in February. 

“It’s frustrating because in these times we hear the leaders of our country saying to look out for everybody and do the right thing and respect your community, and then to allow these multimillion dollar companies to keep our money interest free for an extended period of time doesn’t feel like the right thing to us,” McLean said. 

Aubertin said the obstacles have been particularly disappointing given that other countries have taken a firmer stance on helping passengers.

In April, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a notice reminding U.S. and foreign airlines that they “remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers” despite the pandemic and warned that it would take “enforcement action” as necessary.

Carly Aubertin, left, and Rob McLean, right, have emailed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for help — but his office said the couple’s only option was to file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. (Submitted)

In Canada, airlines have been asking the government for financial help to survive an unprecedented drop in business during the height of the pandemic. In many cases, airlines have been issuing travel vouchers redeemable for two years, rather than refunds. 

The CTA said it issued a “non-binding statement” on issuing vouchers in the face of “unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances” during the pandemic.

The agency said the industry collapsed worldwide and there was an “absence of any general minimum obligation under the law for airlines to pay refunds for flights cancelled for reasons beyond their control.”

After months of public outrage, WestJet announced last week it was changing its refund policy on Nov. 2 to give customers back money for flights cancelled due to COVID-19.

Air Canada took to Twitter shortly afterwards and said it’s already repaid $1.2 billion to date for refundable tickets cancelled during the pandemic.

John Gradek, a former Air Canada executive and lecturer at McGill University’s aviation management program, said the timing is no coincidence.

Canada’s major airlines — WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing and Swoop — are facing a series of class action lawsuits over refunds during COVID and the federal court certification hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2. 

Gradek also believes airlines realized there wasn’t public support for a government bailout unless carriers refunded passengers first. The Globe and Mail reported Friday cabinet is currently deliberating a package for the aviation sector that includes scaling back airport fee increases and low interest loans.

CTA losing credibility, Bloc MP says

Passengers and consumers have a right to feel upset about the federal government’s lack of action, said Bloc Québécois MP and transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval.

On Friday, he presented a bill seeking to amend the Canada Transportation Act in order to ensure passengers are fully refunded in the event that an air carrier cancels a flight. 

He said Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s failure to resolve the issue has put undue pressure on the CTA.

“By not acting, Mr. Garneau’s transferring the weight of the situation on the shoulders of the CTA and that’s a big problem,” said Barsalou-Duval. 

“[The CTA is] losing credibility. And that’s the big problem because usually they’re supposed to… apply the rules, apply the law.”

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office has stated for months that he sympathizes with those seeking refunds, while reiterating that airlines are going through a difficult time. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In a statement to CBC News on Sunday, Garneau said he understood the frustration.

“This situation is far from ideal,” he said. “We are encouraged to see that some airlines have refunded their customers, and expect air carriers will do their best to accommodate passengers under these extraordinary circumstances,” the statement read.

“This is an important issue to Canadians. We also continue to work with the airlines to address the overall challenges they are facing due to the pandemic.”

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Thanksgiving, fewer restrictions contributing to Canada's surge in COVID-19 cases, experts say – CTV News

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TORONTO —
Experts say there are a variety of factors contributing to Canada’s recent surge in record breaking COVID-19 cases including Thanksgiving celebrations, fewer restrictions and increased testing capacity.

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease expert at the Jewish General Hospital and McGill University in Montreal, told CTVNews.ca family gatherings that occurred two weeks ago are a “likely contributor to the higher numbers of cases that many provinces have been reporting” in recent days.

Quebec continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada, surpassing more than 100,000 confirmed positive cases in the province on Sunday. Ontario, the second hardest hit province, registered more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time, setting another record for the number of infections in a single day.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health says Thanksgiving may be to blame for the spike while Alberta’s top doctor also cited the holiday as the source of surging coronavirus cases there.

“The leading source of exposures for active cases right now are close contacts, and many of the cases that we are seeing now are the result of spread over Thanksgiving when families gathered together,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in her provincial update on Thursday.

“People did not mean to spread COVID, but it is a reminder where social gatherings, where social distancing and masking are not used consistently are a significant risk for spread.”

Prairie numbers confirm the situation is growing more dire, with Alberta yet again breaking two records on Friday, reporting an unprecedented 432 new cases and 3,651 active cases ahead of the weekend.

Saskatchewan announced 78 new cases of COVID-19, making it the second province to report a new single-day high on Saturday, while Manitoba recorded 153 new cases and two additional deaths, the fifth consecutive day new cases have topped 100.

However, Oughton warned that the Thanksgiving holiday is not the only reason why cases are increasing across the country.

“Understanding why these transmissions are occurring in real time is important if we want to identify new risk factors and reduce numbers of new infections before we see increases in more vulnerable populations,” Oughton explained in an email on Sunday.

He said the change in weather may have more Canadians spending time indoors with poorer ventilation and in closer proximity to others compared to the summer months, giving more opportunities for transmission.

In addition, Oughton said provinces may be seeing higher case numbers now than during the first wave because testing capacity has increased in many areas. For example, Quebec’s goal was to conduct 14,000 tests per day during the first wave. Now, the province is recording around 25,000 tests each day.

“It is possible that there were more cases in the first wave that were never tested, and that those ‘missed’ cases were more similar to the cases we are seeing today,” Oughton said.

MORE RESTRICTIONS NEEDED

Despite the Thanksgiving holiday being over, Dr. Ronald St. John, the former director-general of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, is not sure that case numbers will now begin to decrease.

He told CTV news Channel on Sunday that the steady upwards trends of infections is worrisome.

“The important thing… is to look back over a period of days to see what the trend might be, and when I say trend I mean are cases going up at a steady rate, or are they actually accelerating?” St. John said. “And it looks like it’s a fairly steady trend upwards.”

St. John said COVID fatigue may be a reason why cases are continuing to increase as Canadians grow tired of taking virus precautions.

“We have a problem in terms of the public health measures that we can use to try to contain this virus. They depend on people’s behaviour, individually and collectively… and I think people are getting very tired and as a result, I think there are some lapses in following the precautions recommended by authorities,” he explained.

St. John warned that fewer virus restrictions and a decreased compliance with those restrictions may add to the surge of infections in the coming days.

“This virus will step in wherever somebody makes an exception to the public health measures, and this virus will cause more infections, chains of infections and death increases as we’ve seen in these provinces,” he said.

Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto who studies infectious diseases, says the rising tide of cases across much of Canada appears unlikely to recede if stricter measures are not imposed.

“This is a disease that grows exponentially … and when things ramp up quickly they come on with gangbusters. We’ve seen that everywhere else around the world right now, especially in Europe,” Morris previously told The Canadian Press.

“As it moves to older adults, you’re going to see more people proportionally with severe disease. I believe we’re at a point right now where these increases are largely inevitable unless there’s more substantial action to try to tamp all of this second wave down.”

Morris said tighter limits on group gatherings and indoor activities may be necessary.

“It is a mindset … When the public hears that there’s still a fair amount of freedom from the government, what that also tells them is that it really isn’t so bad right now,” he said.

On Sunday, Canada’s top physician warned that minimizing the impact of COVID-19 will only work if everyone follows public health guidelines.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the number of Canadians experiencing severe illness is already on the rise amid the spike in cases, raising concerns about hospital capacity.

To ensure ICUs don’t become overwhelmed, she reminded Canadians to keep physically a part.

“While I know keeping physically apart is difficult, particularly when we want to mark life’s important moments like weddings and funerals, now is not the time for hosting large in-person gatherings,” Tam said in a written statement.

“Right now, doing the best thing to keep our family, friends and community safer means keeping safely apart, connecting virtually, and finding safer ways to care and support each other.”

She implored Canadians to continue doing their part to help limit the spread of COVID-19 by keeping social circles small, maintain physical distancing and hand hygiene, and wear face masks when appropriate.

With files from The Canadian Press

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Police issued 77 fines, charged 7 people for breaking Canada's COVID-19 quarantine rules – CBC.ca

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Over the past seven months, police have issued 77 fines and charged seven people for violating Canada’s Quarantine Act, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

PHAC said that since the act took effect in late March, more than one million people who entered Canada were required to quarantine for 14 days. The agency said it had flagged more than 247,000 of those travellers to police as potential quarantine violators.

RCMP officers issued the majority of the fines, which ranged from $275 to $1,275. Individuals can either pay their fine or contest it in court. Anyone charged — typically for a more serious offence — must appear in court. 

Under the Quarantine Act, both Canadians and foreigners entering Canada must quarantine for 14 days, unless they get a special exemption

Last month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford complained publicly that not enough people were being punished for breaching the act.

“The system’s broken,” he said. “We can’t have our police running around and seeing people breaking quarantine and nothing happens to them.… It turns into being a joke.”

Ford said that he planned to work with the federal government to fix the problem.

WATCH | Premier Ford says Canada’s Quarantine Act ‘broken’:

Calling penalties a ‘slap on the wrist,’ Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the current Quarantine Act for people arriving in Canada during the pandemic is broken and needs to change. 2:14

In response to Ford’s criticism, PHAC said police are responsible for enforcing the Quarantine Act, and that enforcement actions can include a written or verbal warning. 

The RCMP declined to respond directly to Ford’s comments but told CBC News that officers aren’t eager to dole out fines to everyone violating COVID-19-related regulations. 

“The RCMP’s focus remains on educating and encouraging members of the public who may not be following the measures set out by public health authorities,” said spokesperson Robin Percival in an email.

“Enforcement is a last resort, but one that can be used if the circumstances warrant.”

Who’s facing charges?

CBC News was able to obtain information from police on five individuals who were charged under the Quarantine Act. Most face penalties of up to six months in jail and/or fines of up to $750,000. Each person is set to appear in court at the end of this month or next month. 

One of the most recent cases involves a 53-year-old woman from Ottawa who works in a long-term care home. Police said she went back to work just four days after returning to Canada on Sept. 26 from a trip abroad.

“When management was apprised of the situation, she was immediately sent home,” said Ottawa police in a statement

Police didn’t provide the woman’s name or the name of her workplace. 

The woman was charged on Oct. 2 for allegedly failing to comply with the 14-day quarantine requirement and for causing risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm.

Chris Saccoccia, seen here during a protest against mandatory mask measures on the TTC, was fined $1,000 for contravening the Quarantine Act, police say. Despite the fine, Saccoccia attended an anti-lockdown rally in downtown Toronto on Oct. 3. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Outspoken anti-masker Chris Saccoccia, 37, of King City, Ont., and his wife, Jennifer, 34, were charged on Oct. 5 for allegedly defying the quarantine rules.

According to Toronto police, the couple had returned to Canada from abroad on Sept. 20. Just six days later, police fined Saccoccia $1,000 after he attended an anti-mask/anti-lockdown rally in downtown Toronto.

Police said Saccoccia and his wife were then charged after they attended another Toronto rally 13 days after their return to Canada. This rally was “attended by 500 non-mask wearing participants,” police said in a statement

Saccoccia told CBC News in a written message that he’s looking forward to filing a challenge against the quarantine rules, which he claims violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Even under extreme, emergency situations, justification to violate our rights must be presented,” said Saccoccia.

Alaska driver charged

A fourth case involves a man from Kentucky who was driving through Canada from Alaska. 

Although the Canada-U.S border is closed to non-essential traffic, Canada allows Americans to drive through the country to or from Alaska. But they can’t make unnecessary stops along the way. 

Alberta RCMP said John Pennington, 40, was initially given a $1,200 ticket on June 25 for stopping in Banff National Park on his way to the continental U.S. 

Police say Pennington had not left town the following day, as ordered, so he was charged for allegedly breaching the Quarantine Act. 

John Pennington of Kentucky has received both a fine and been charged for stopping in Banff while driving from Alaska through Alberta to the continental U.S. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

CBC News asked Pennington for an interview, but he didn’t respond. In June, he posted a video on Facebook, detailing his Banff experience but recently removed it. 

In the fifth case, Yukon RCMP said a man was charged on July 6 in Beaver Creek, Yukon, for allegedly returning to Canada from abroad and not quarantining for 14 days. RCMP said officers were alerted to the case after the man was sighted at the local post office. 

Provincial fines

Police have also issued numerous COVID-19-related fines under provincial legislation for violations such as not physical distancing or failing to keep a contact list of guests attending a party. 

According to Statistics Canada, RCMP responded to more than 9,500 incidents between March and June where people violated provincial or territorial COVID-19-related regulations. 

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