There have been growing tensions between the United States and Canada over Canada’s continuing closure of its border to non-essential US travellers, which has been in effect since 21 March and is slated to remain in effect until September. Penalties for unlawfully crossing into Canada can be expensive, and can also involve detention and incarceration. “Anyone caught breaking the border restrictions can be fined up to C$750,000 ($566,000; £434,000) and be sentenced to six months in jail, or C$1m and three years if their actions ‘cause risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm’” (BBC 13 August).
Asylum seekers entering Canada from the United States have also faced severe restrictions throughout the pandemic. In a 15 June update on this platform the GDP reported information provided by UNHCR Canada, which said that the border closure was having an important impact on the number of asylum seekers entering the country: while there were 63,830 asylum applications in 2019, there were 12,380 between January and March 2020. The trend continued in the following months as from April to the end of June 2020, there were 4,470 asylum applications compared to 13,825 in the same period in 2019.
An important mechanism for returning asylum seekers to the US has been a Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between the two countries, which allows Canada to send asylum seekers back to the US who entered from that country. However, a Federal Court in Canada ruled on 22 July that the agreement was unconstitutional because, according to Justice Ann McDonald, the US can no longer be considered a safe country to send refugees to. “I have concluded that the actions of Canadian authorities in enforcing the STCA result in ineligible (refugee) claimants being imprisoned by US authorities,” McDonald wrote. “I have concluded that imprisonment and the attendant consequences are inconsistent with the spirit and objective of the STCA and are a violation of the rights guaranteed by section 7 of the (Charter of Rights and Freedoms).” The STCA will, however, remain in effect for six months, as the Federal Court suspended its declaration of invalidity to allow the Parliament to respond.
As of 12 August, 1,522 inmates had been tested in Canada’s federal prisons.On 16 July, Canada’s government announced that prisoners in federal institutions would be allowed visitors, after a four-month suspension of visits. A CBC investigation showed that inmates are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 than the rest of the population, with infection rates five times higher in provincial jails, and nine times higher in federal facilities.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) published a report on 19 June assessing the government’s response to COVID-19 in federal correctional facilities. The OCI pointed out that restrictions (such as indefinite lockdown, cellular isolation for extended periods of time) remained in place in many facilities where there had been no outbreak of COVID-19. They recommended lifting these restrictions where it is safe to do so, highlighting that “public health emergencies must be managed within a legal framework, and rights need to be respected and restored.”
Regarding the decrease in total federal inmate population, the report points out that only 5 percent of inmates were released. The decline in numbers is “mostly attributable to the fact that the courts have not been functioning or sending individuals to federal custody in usual numbers.” The OCI also denounced the lack of a plan to further decrease inmate populations to slow the COVID-19 transmission. In Alberta, on 17 July, a group of lawyers called out the provincial government, saying that “ongoing violations of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Alberta jails is putting inmates and staff at high risk”. Inmates have reported a lack of access to masks and cleaning supplies, while respecting social distancing is impossible in reality. The Quebec government was also called out by an organization, Anti-Carceral Group, for its response to the pandemic.
- BBC, “Americans, go home: Tension at Canada-US border,” 13 August 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53742684
- Canadian Council for Refugees v. Canada (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship), 2020 FC 770, Federal Court, 22 July 2020, https://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fc-cf/decisions/en/item/482757/index.do
- Global News, “Federal Court rules Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement unconstitutional,” 22 July 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/7205230/federal-court-rules-canada-u-s-safe-third-country-agreement-unconstitutional/
- Office of the Correctional Investigator, “COVID-19 Update for Federal Corrections – June 19, 2020,” 19 June 2020, https://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/pdf/oth-aut/oth-aut20200619-eng.pdf
- V. Ouellet and J. Loiero, “COVID-19 Taking A Toll In Prisons, With High Infection Rates, CBC News Analysis Shows,” CBC News, 17 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prisons-jails-inmates-covid-19-1.5652470
- J. Wakfield, “Alberta Prisoner Populations Down 35 Per Cent Since Start Of COVID-19 Pandemic,” 29 June 2020, https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/alberta-prisoner-populations-down-35-per-cent-since-start-of-covid-19-pandemic
- R. Nair, “Prisons Should Consider Safe Release As A Pandemic Health Measure: Advocate,” CBC, 21 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/safe-release-covid-19-1.5656861
- A. Huncar, “Alberta jails breaching pandemic protocols, lawyers warn province,” 17 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-jails-covid-19-protocols-safety-1.5652897
- A. Popple, “Quebec Prisons Failing to Protect Inmates,” The McGill Daily, 8 June 2020, https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2020/06/quebec-prisons-failing-to-protect-inmates/
- L. Steacy, “Federal prisoners allowed visitors after four-month COVID-19 ban,” 16 July 2020, https://www.citynews1130.com/2020/07/16/federal-prisoners-allow-visitors-after-four-month-covid-19-ban/
- Government of Canada, “Asylum Claims by Year – 2019,” accessed on 17 August 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/asylum-claims/asylum-claims-2019.html
- Government of Canada, “Asylum Claims by Year – 2020,” accessed on 17 August 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/asylum-claims/asylum-claims-2020.html
- Global Detention Project, Immigration Detention in Canada, June 2018, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/americas/canada
- A Prison Guard Keeps Watch as Medical Workers Walk at a Secure Mobile Medical Unit Set-up at the Abbotsford Regional Hospital to Treat Prisoners with Covid-19, (Jesse Winter, Reuters, “Prisoners Should Consider Safe Release as a Pandemic Health Measure: Advocate,” 21 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/safe-release-covid-19-1.5656861)