Canada

Inside the frantic, gruelling, all-hands-on-deck effort to bring Canadians home

An astonishing one million citizens and permanent residents returned to Canada in a single mid-March week, but legions more were desperate, homesick and stranded, as a panicked world snapped shut around them

Keegan Kent and Christina Radvak in Peru, before boarding their plane home to Canada

Christina Radvak stood waiting on the tarmac at the air force base in Lima, Peru. She and her fiancé, Keegan Kent, had done little but wait for more than a week, amid government-imposed lockdown, curfews and flickering hopes they could get home. An Air Canada wide-body jet stood before them, a tall steel staircase leading to the cabin door. It opened, and out came mask-clad flight attendants, waving a Canadian flag. Radvak clutched her chest in elation. “That’s when it hit me: we’re getting home. This is it,” the 28-year-old recalls.

The 400 passengers, all Canadians, applauded when the Toronto-bound jet took off. They were giddy again when the crew brought snacks through the rows. Grateful as they were that they’d soon see their North Vancouver home again—and be stuck in it for a 14-day quarantine—Radvak and Kent couldn’t help thinking about the many Canadians who weren’t flying home yet, and maybe not any time soon.

On a WhatsApp chat group of hundreds of Canadians stranded in the Peruvian mountain city of Cusco, Kent got to know Greg Bestavros, a fellow 29-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. Both were travelling with their fiancées, and both grew anxious the Canadian government was taking too long to repatriate them after Peru shut its airspace and borders on March 16 in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

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On March 27, Radvak and Kent left their Airbnb apartment in Cusco’s historic centre to begin their journey back to Canada. Bestavros and his partner, Marina Fanous, staying at a hostel four blocks away, would barely be allowed to leave their room. A day earlier, they’d received 2020’s version of a nightmare scenario: Two fellow hostel guests tested positive for coronavirus, and local authorities imposed a strict 28-day lockdown for everyone inside. Canada’s government wasn’t offering enough flights for all the citizens stranded in Cusco, and these first spurts of federal help wouldn’t extend to people under Peruvian isolation orders.

Anxious dramas like these were playing out across the planet as the pandemic shuttered the free-flowing global travel routes that sent Canadians—as many as five million of them at any one time—securely abroad for vacation, study or long-term living. An astonishing one million citizens and permanent residents returned in a single mid-March week, but legions more were desperate, homesick and stranded, as a panicked world snapped shut around them.

While the rest of Canada’s governmental apparatus raced to contain the domestic viral spread and staunch economic bleeding, the Global Affairs Department, led by Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, converted into a massive crisis hotline and travel logistics agency. It has helped arrange dozens of flights to repatriate stranded Canadians from Peru to Poland, Sudan to El Salvador, sometimes having to negotiate to pry open sealed borders and airspace.

Ottawa has brought home thousands, and has had to urge thousands of others to be patient; they’re working on it. Champagne calls it the largest repatriation effort in peace-time history. But officials warned as well: They can’t get everybody.

Peru offers historic architecture, Andean mountain trails and consistently pleasant weather, though the 5,440 Canadians voluntarily registered with Global Affairs there during the crisis ranks it well below top-tier visitor destinations. But it became a flashpoint for traveller panic when Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra abruptly imposed a nationwide quarantine on March 16—no international flights, an 8 p.m. curfew, a domestic transportation clampdown and police in the streets to enforce the conditions. It took Canada more than a week to secure Air Canada flights into Lima, the capital, but many travellers were elsewhere in a country more vast than Ontario.

Greg Bestavros and Marina Fanous (Courtesy of Greg Bestavros and Marina Fanous)

Ekaterina Alexeeva was in the middle of a six-week sabbatical, hiking in the Andes, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11. She decided to end her trip so she could get back to Vancouver, where she’s an emergency room physician. The 46-year-old managed to reach the city of Arequipa before Peru’s state of emergency, and then it took nine days for her and 101 fellow Canadians to get permission to board a bus for the 13-hour drive to Lima. There, she had been unable to get a seat on the Air Canada planes flying out. She says she felt abandoned by government machinery and guilty that she wasn’t at her hospital, treating coronavirus patients. “I am watching in horror as the numbers in Canada are growing and I am still here, not able to go back home so I can help,” Alexeeva wrote to her local MP. She finally flew home on April 1.

Champagne tells Maclean’s that Peru is one of the most complex countries for repatriation, in part because the country is under “martial law” and Canada must secure citizens’ passage through hilly blockaded roadways to Lima’s military airport, the lone runway that will allow international flights. He’s exchanged daily text messages with Peru’s foreign minister to secure landing slots that other countries also demand for their repatriation missions. On top of that, Canada must ensure flight crews won’t be quarantined upon arrival and can get their mandatory rest periods. “It’s all these complexities, one atop another,” he says.

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Travellers in Cusco, the launchpad for hikers up to Machu Picchu, were feeling abandoned as Canada initially began offering flights from Lima, but no buses or planes to their mountain-nestled city. Kent, a landscape architect and Radvak, a sustainable building consultant, were near the end of a two-month ramble through the United States, Chile and Peru when Canada issued a global travel advisory on March 13 and urged citizens to seek ways home. They bumped their flight up a week to March 18. Three days before that, on a train returning from their quick Machu Picchu visit, Radvak overheard a woman talking in Spanish about the borders closing. They raced to Cusco’s airport, but it was packed and they couldn’t get tickets out.

Kent and Radvak would remain largely confined to a kitchen-less apartment with eight other foreign travellers and the owner. Email updates from Global Affairs gave them few updates—until, that is, a March 26 note to everyone registered in Cusco that a Colombian airline was flying charters for Canadians the next day to connect with a Lima-Toronto flight. The couple spent hours struggling to get through the booking portal with the same code all the others were given, and then secure a connecting ticket—nothing was confirmed until Kent noticed an email at 2:30 a.m., finally letting them know that they would need to travel that morning.

Bestavros and Fanous would wake up that same Friday morning with anxious dread. The tech worker had proposed to his pharmaceutical rep girlfriend on Christmas morning, and they’d flown to Peru for a friend’s wedding just before Canada’s travel advisories spread beyond coronavirus-hit places like China and Europe. They got the same Global Affairs memo about flights from Cusco, but the note came with a proviso that ruled them ineligible: “Peruvian authorities have placed certain hotels/hostels under official quarantine. If you are staying in one of these properties, do NOT purchase a ticket for this flight as we have been advised that no one will be permitted to leave the premises.”

By mid-March, what was happening in Peru was playing out across the western hemisphere, as leaders enacted harsh isolation measures to try to prevent the wildfire-like spread and dire human toll that parts of Europe were seeing.

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Tony and Judy Osman traveled to Spain for a family reunion (Courtesy of Tony and Judy Osman)

Forty-seven million Spaniards went into a lockdown on March 14, but by then Spain had already tallied the fifth-highest number of cases in the world and soon would rocket past China’s grim figures.

Tony and Judy Osman, a retired couple from Campbellville, Ont., spent nearly two years planning a family reunion with Tony’s British siblings to celebrate his 70th birthday. They checked into a waterfront rental on Nerja, on Spain’s south coast, on March 4—but while they were busy looking for celebration spots, they watched the death toll skyrocket in nearby Italy and spider elsewhere at an alarming rate. They soon found themselves in a real-life purgatory of cancelled flights, closed borders and shrinking options. They heard Trudeau urge everyone to come home, but it wasn’t so easy. “You get a sort of high because you think: ‘Maybe we’re okay,’ ” Judy says. “Then an email comes through and we’re right back where we started.”

When the embassy in Madrid announced Air Transat repatriation flights from Malaga, the Osmans immediately went online and snagged two seats for $4,300. While counting down the minutes until their March 31 liftoff, they rarely ventured outside and spent hours reading local news reports about escalating casualties in the country they were desperately trying to flee.

Linda and Ron March of Minden, Ont., managed to escape Spain before Ottawa began running repatriation charters—but only after navigating their own maze of cancelled airfare, nearly-impossible-to-get rental cars, a police checkpoint and a confused dash through an empty airport. Finally, they flew out via Dublin. Now, she wrote to relatives from home quarantine, “I have a much better appreciation for how refugees or displaced people feel.”

Sahar Chalibiani and her husband, stuck in Italy

Canada has not provided direct flights from Italy since Air Canada stopped flying there on March 10. Sahar Chalibiani of Chilliwack, B.C., who had been living in a small city west of Rome for the last year with her Italian-born husband, grew worried that if she got sick, the hard-hit country’s overwhelmed hospital system couldn’t help her. “People are just dying so quickly, so many young people now.” After a week of failed booking attempts and no scheduled direct Canadian flights from Rome, Chalibiani found a connection for two through Frankfurt—but Canada did help, to the tune of a $5,000 Global Affairs emergency loan on offer for stranded residents in need.

Having even a mild fever or cough, coronavirus or not, carries further risk for Canadians: They can’t fly out if they show virus-like symptoms. “Honestly, I’m just so terrified of getting sick,” says Judy Osman.

A Calgary woman studying in Scotland was denied boarding a WestJet plane on March 20 in London, after telling the airline agent she’d had a cold two weeks earlier. “Gate agents are not qualified to determine who is healthy or not,” said the student’s mother, Anh Nguyen. “They didn’t even take her temperature.” The woman managed to fly on Air Canada the next day. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases have turned up on several repatriation flights, and during returnees’ subsequent 14-day isolations.

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Depending on estimates, there are between two and five million Canadian citizens or permanent residents abroad at any given time—much of those in the United States, but we’re known to scatter everywhere in search of sun and new experiences. “I don’t think there is a speck of land anywhere in the world that you won’t find a Canadian,” says former diplomat Gar Pardy.

And there’s no legal obligation to bring a single one of them back, says the former director-general of consular affairs. But the political and social expectation is universally understood, and Ottawa has always strived to get everyone back who wants to come back. “There isn’t a crisis in the world where the government says, ‘Well, to hell with the Canadians over there, they can fend for themselves,’ ” Pardy says.

The challenge becomes how and how fast. Global Affairs tries to get people together in sufficient volumes to book a decent-size aircraft, and arrange to get Canadians to the airport. When every place is in pandemic mode, on-the-ground consular assistance doesn’t mean what it normally does. And, Pardy says, such rescues take time even when disease spread isn’t a factor.

The last major effort that comes even close is the 2006 repatriation of 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon during a Hezbollah-Israel conflict. Peter MacKay, who was six months into his job as foreign affairs minister at the time, remembers sleeping over at his ministry office for several days as he coordinated with several governments for the maritime rescue: Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel and European allies. It took weeks, at a cost of $85 million.

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The current minister’s need to manage multiple repatriation efforts at once is “exponentially more complicated and involved,” MacKay says. Moreover, MacKay benefited from an “all-of-government” response in 2006, with even then-prime minister Stephen Harper flying his government jet to Cyprus to bring several dozen back home; in 2020’s crisis, the rest of government is otherwise busy managing the domestic virus fallout, though MPs from every corner of Canada are fielding panicked resident calls and trying to advocate for those struggling for help and frustrated with limited or generic updates from the government.

With such a complex effort, headaches and heartbreaks abound. Kent, who got out of Peru with his fiancée, was among the several people complaining about all Canadians having to use the same online code to access flights from Lima, a mad digital rush for far more travellers than there were seats. Vancouver MP Jenny Kwan says she’s fielded numerous complaints about the huge cost of commercial rescue flights and daunting conditions to access government loans.

Sunwing Airlines took the rare step of offering free flights to all its customers stuck abroad—and included in their 60,000 passengers flying out of Mexico, the Caribbean and other sunny locales were 3,300 who weren’t their customers at all. “If we’re doing repatriation and we’ve got empty seats, why would we leave people behind?” says Sunwing president Mark Williams. “It was really the Prime Minister’s comments that made us think about not just our own customers, but whether we could help others.”

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Canadians tourists at the Canadian embassy in Lima, Peru, preparing to be repatriated to their home country. (David Julià)

Before March, Global Affairs had repatriated hundreds of Canadians from China’s Hubei province and some Princess line cruise ships, all the while performing other typical trade and diplomatic roles. Come mid-March, Champagne says nearly the entirety of Global Affairs sprang into consular service mode, with about 250 people staffing an emergency call centre daily and far more trying to get arrangements in place behind the scenes. “What you’re facing in Peru, multiply that by 10 and 20,” the minister says.

Champagne says he’s personally put in 18-hour days, calling and texting not only foreign counterparts, but also overseas airline CEOs, cruise ship executives and more. His office has worked with foreign telecom providers to offer message alerts to registered Canadians in some nations. By the end of March, Canada had arranged 42 flights from 29 countries, and the minister expected to reach several more countries in April.

Morocco was one of the first repatriation successes, with 1,300 of the 5,500 registered Canadians coming home on the first three flights from Casablanca. Some stranded Canadians elsewhere wondered why Morocco became the squeaky wheel. On March 14, Canada’s embassy in Rabat posted an alert that ended up being widely misinterpreted: that Morocco had just suspended direct flights to Canada. Many assumed cancellations were immediate, and didn’t bother trying to catch their jets—a day later, the embassy clarified the closures were on the 16th, at which point the airport descended into bedlam and many failed to get out.

Champagne likens it to multiple games of chess, trying to find new solutions each time a country changed its travel rules. Champagne says to those Canada hasn’t picked up first: Hundreds of civil servants are seeking to overcome the various barriers in their way. But there will be limits, he warns.

“We have to accept that despite our best effort, and we will be relentless, there will be people for whom we will not be able to facilitate the return to Canada,” Champagne says. At some stage, though not yet, Global Affairs will have to shift operations to figure out how to best support those Canadians within the local lockdowns they face. Asked about the plight of nine Canadians quarantined at the Pariwina hostel in Cusco, Champagne says diplomatic efforts will be constrained by public health or security rules imposed by local authorities. He requested that Peru’s foreign minister contact the local governor to assist the hostel-bound Canadians: “We had to arrange for basic necessities to be delivered to them.”

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In 2006, Canada began ferrying Lebanese-Canadians and tourists home within a week of Israeli bombs hitting the country. Fourteen years later, a new crisis has left Canadians waiting on any concrete signs of action from Ottawa, half a month after a national lockdown left them marooned. Adam Bannister, 23, has taught English in Beirut’s outskirts since last September, as part of a volunteer internship for a degree at a bible college in Abbotsford, B.C. From his apartment window, he sees a mobile crane serving as a roadblock and soldiers patrolling the empty streets, ensuring that nobody’s going out for anything non-essential.

Alone in his apartment, he’d spend mornings reading and exercising in his kitchen, then communicating home when it’s late enough in the Mideast for Canadians to be awake. Uncertainty and unknown variables clouded his thoughts. “It’s like solitary confinement, and I have no idea when it’s going to end,” Bannister says. The embassy finally coordinated an April 5 flight home via Qatar.

The number of Canadians desperate to return home grew massively when India’s prime minister declared an abrupt 21-day national lockdown on March 25. More than 28,150 people on the voluntary registry of Canadians abroad were in India, making it second only to the United States. Put another way, that’s more than 50 jumbo-jet loads. After days of negotiating with airlines and government, Champagne announced rescue flights would begin landing in India in early April, as well as in Pakistan—but this would be another lengthy effort.

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Passengers of Holland America’s cruise ship Zaandam are transferred to the Rotterdam cruise ship in Panama City bay on March 28, 2020. (Ivan Pisarenko/AFP/Getty Images)

Home in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley seems perilously inaccessible for Claire Ward, a documentary videographer (and a former Maclean’s writer) who has been living in Kenya for the last three years with her husband and two kids, including a one-year-old with a history of respiratory illness. Once virus cases began emerging in the East African country, she became concerned the health system would get easily overwhelmed. Flights came for Dutch citizens and Americans—but not Canadians—before Kenya’s airports closed on March 25. Her emails with Global Affairs show staff have attempted to play travel agent to get her a flight back home. Her failed attempts to get out included a $10,000 booking that maxed out her credit card before that flight, too, got cancelled. She could book special flights to Britain, but can’t bear the thought of being stranded in a foreign airport with her kids. “Because my son is so vulnerable, I’m afraid to make any moves,” Ward says. An added wrinkle for her: Ward’s husband isn’t Canadian, and Canada isn’t letting non-residents in.

This crisis not only left thousands of Canadians stranded abroad, but also adrift. As global travel ports slammed shut, several cruise ships struggled to find a jurisdiction that would let them dock, especially after outbreaks on some ships exported the disease in February and early March. The MS Zaandam set sail on March 7, a day after Canadian authorities recommended against cruise travel; by this time, many of the 247 Canadians booked for the cruise would have already been in Argentina to board and unable to get refunds. Days after Chile closed its port, preventing the ship from ending its journey on March 21, several dozen passengers and crew aboard reported respiratory illness. When a support ship with medical staff arrived near Panama to assist and provide coronavirus tests, two passengers tested positive and four others had died on board.

At its hoped-for destination in Fort Lauderdale, county officials were uncertain about letting the troubled Zaandam dock; Gov. Ron DeSantis cruelly said he didn’t want foreigners “dumped” into south Florida. Meanwhile, Champagne says he lobbied for the ship’s safe passage through the Panama Canal.

Torontonians Jeannette and Kevin Balgopal in their cabin on the MS Zaandam, a cruise ship that has been unable to disembark.

Staff loaded some people onto a support ship in order to limit the risk of viral spread on the Zaandam. They initially took passengers who fit three criteria: They were older than 70, they weren’t feeling unwell and they had inside cabins. Kevin and Jeannette Balgopal of Toronto fit the first two categories—he’s 80, she’s 78—but their cabin had an ocean-view, so they had to wait before changing ships. The elderly couple was trying not to let their minds run wild with worry. “My feeling is that doesn’t get us anywhere,” Kevin said. “If we have any sentimental energy left, we should focus on the positive possibilities.” The ships finally docked on April 2, after Florida authorities gave last-minute permission.

After an eight-hour flight from Lima to Toronto, and a restless overnight at Pearson airport, Kent and Radvak hopped on the earliest flight they could to the West Coast on March 28. That afternoon, Radvak’s uncle and aunt greeted them at the airport—from a distance—and left a car in the Vancouver airport parking lot for them to take home. The couple is starting their 14-day mandatory quarantine in her relatives’ basement suite while their house has tenants. It’s well-lit and well-stocked with groceries. They had intended to go ring shopping the week they returned, but jewellers are closed. Instead, they’ll relax and look forward to their wedding, currently planned for August, if the world is closer to its normal self by then.

Bestavros and Fanous sometimes think of their own looming nuptials, set for October. After several nights largely confined to a tiny room with no bathroom or even place to hang clothes, they have renewed hope. The couple was among dozens of hostel guests moved across the street to a nicer hotel. A doctor will come test them, 14 days after the first virus cases in their hostel. They feel safer and more confident that Canada will be able to rescue them before their 28-day sentence ends. But in their case, Ottawa can only do so much. Fortune will have to do the rest.


This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Operation Get Home.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.