Air Canada airplanes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Air Canada airplanes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

‘One of our finer moments:’ Pandemic led to massive scramble to get Canadians home

A total of 62,580 Canadian travellers were brought home from 109 countries

The fever struck Gary Lyon days after he and his wife, Sue, reached their Toronto home early last April, ending what was to have been their 40th wedding anniversary dream vacation.

They were passengers on Coral Princess, one of dozens of cruise ships cast adrift as the COVID-19 pandemic caught fire one year ago. After being rejected at several ports across South America, their ship found its final refuge in Miami, setting off a frenzied set of flights home — through Columbus, Ohio and Newark, N.J.

The Lyons witnessed a chaotic “gong show” of departures in the U.S., especially in Columbus where masked passengers mixed with unmasked drivers waiting on the tarmac at the bottom of the plane’s staircase.

When they arrived in Toronto, the Lyons were impressed by the steps taken to guard against the virus. The plane landed in a remote terminal and its passengers met masked border officials who were efficient.

But they wonder to this day about their taxi driver who declined their offer of a mask.

“We took all the precautions that people had asked us to do, like masks and gloves and luggage that was sprayed and all that stuff. But when I got home — when we got home — what kicked in was fever, body ache, loss of taste and smell,” Gary recalled.

So began a new, challenging health journey for the Lyons, two of the 62,580 Canadian travellers who were brought home from 109 countries as the federal government staged the largest, most elaborate repatriation of stranded Canadians outside of a full-scale war.

They came home on 692 flights and from 36 cruise ships, in an effort that continued until early July last year, Global Affairs Canada said.

Global Affairs headquarters transformed into a travel agency. The department’s emergency response centre, normally staffed by two dozen people, swelled to 600, swallowing up offices, the library and entire floors of the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa.

When countries began locking down, imposing road closures and checkpoints, there were calls to foreign governments to negotiate landing rights and safe ground passage for desperate passengers.

“Everyone became a consular official, everyone became a travel agent,” recalled then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne. “I remember texting my counterpart in Peru to open the airspace.”

After doing that, Champagne got another call. Peru had declared martial law just as an Air Canada flight had been booked to head there. So, Champagne and his officials scrambled again, and the jet was granted permission to land at a military base just outside Lima.

“The airlines responded beautifully. I’m talking mainly Air Canada, because they have the international reach,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. Garneau was the transport minister last year.

“We worked with them as a government to organize a lot of these flights, which they did at cost. And so, I have nothing but admiration for how they did that.”

For some travellers, the trip home was quick and uneventful. But for many, the exercise was fraught with delays, costs, and concern they would get sick from COVID-19. A year later, there is anger when they see Canadians still travelling to sun destinations.

Spencer Mason made it home from London last March, but it was a tough decision to leave behind a good IT job in a vibrant world capital. When he heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s televised call for Canadians to come home as the pandemic was declared, Mason bought a plane ticket before the big rush hit.

“I wasn’t just temporarily visiting the U.K., but rather a full-time employee, which made the decision a bit harder,” said Mason, 23, who is now attending the London School of Economics and Political Science remotely from St. Catharines, Ont.

For other travellers, not everything went as smoothly. Some think the government could have done better, especially on the communications front.

Sanford Osler was among the final 94 to disembark the Coral Princess cruise ship in Miami after its South American voyage was disrupted by the pandemic.

The Canadians on board had formed close friendships, creating a Facebook page and an email list. They began sharing information because Osler said the official line coming out of Global Affairs just didn’t add up.

“That was my biggest concern about the Canadian government. They were following it, they had plans, but they weren’t communicating it generally through their normal channels to us.”

Passengers contacted their members of Parliament. Osler credits his Liberal MP, Terry Beech, with being “very useful because he got in touch with Global Affairs and sent me specific information that we weren’t getting.”

Catherine McLeod, a retired high school teacher from Ottawa who made a harrowing trip home last April from a stranded cruise ship, said the government should have done more, sooner, to slam Canada’s border shut to foreign travellers.

“And here we are with the variants now. Doesn’t make much sense to me. I think it’s ridiculous that they kept allowing people to fly in and fly out.”

But McLeod gives the government high marks for negotiating the passage of the cruise ship she and her husband, Paul, were on — the Zaandam — through the Panama Canal in late March.

Dozens of passengers had developed flu-like symptoms and the ship had been essentially stranded at sea after setting off from Chile in mid-March. It was granted passage through the channel on condition that all passengers stay on board.

“That was the government that pushed that. We snuck through in the dead of night with no lights on or anything,” said McLeod. The ship made port in Florida by the end of March, enabling McLeod and others to fly home.

McLeod and her husband are staying put these days. They managed to stay healthy, but others they knew from the ship got sick.

The experience has marked her forever, she said. She has no patience for people who chose to travel now.

“I think you’d have to be out of your mind,” said McLeod.

Gary Lyon agrees. He’s since beat COVID-19. His wife, Sue, was never tested but had all the symptoms and likely had it too. Today, they both feel a little more sluggish, less vibrant, and they have a hard time wondering whether it’s just a bad day, or something else. They’re reading a lot about so-called “long-haulers” in search of clues.

“You might dodge the bullet, but then you might not. I don’t know how people would justify most leisure travel in that scenario,” he said.

During the height of the airlift last spring, Champagne said he wondered whether “there’ll be light at the end of the tunnel” as hundreds of pleas for help piled up on his phone.

The government has now cracked down on travellers, imposing steep fees for quarantine hotels, and Canadian airlines suspending flights to some spots. Champagne wonders why anyone would want to travel for leisure.

“Why would anyone want to take the risk?” he said.

Global Affairs said the financial cost of the effort to get Canadians home is still being calculated.

Garneau said the great repatriation of 2020 was a remarkable achievement that fulfilled a duty to help Canadians who needed rescuing in extreme circumstances.

“There were a lot of people who were saying, ‘Help. Help me to get back to Canada, I need to get back to Canada.’

“I think that it was one of one of our finer moments.”

READ MORE: COVID might have been in Canada earlier than when it was first identified: expert

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wounded Warriors runners run along Beaver Creek Road towards the Beaver Creek Volunteer Fire Department hall. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Port Alberni’s Wounded Warriors stage solo run

Vancouver Island-wide event was cancelled, but Maria Marciano and Dave Nesbitt ran anyway

Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo) plays the drum while singing the Nuu-chah-nulth song on the court steps in Vancouver In a picture from April 2018. Photo credit, Melody Charlie.
Five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations celebrate legal victory in fishing dispute

Ha’oom Fisheries Society and T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries announce “major legal victory”

Winston Joseph, known as Mr. Positive Port Alberni, leads the 2019 Canada Day parade with his wife Sheila. Winston, who was integral in starting the July 1 folkfest, died April 11, 2021 at the age of 89. (PHOTO COURTESY SONJA DRINKWATER)
Community remembers Winston Joseph with Canada Day parade in April

‘Mr. Positive Port Alberni’ started Canada Day folk fest, lived a life of service and faith

Grade 5 Wood Elementary Students cycling on the powerline trail. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
Wood School bicycles, equipment worth $8,000 stolen

Equipment was stored at Echo Fieldhouse in Port Alberni

Alberni Valley Bulldogs forward Kobe Assam battles for the puck despite being knocked to the ice during a physical first period against the Cowichan Valley Capitals on April 7. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
BCHL: Alberni Valley Bulldogs pick up second shutout against Cowichan

Braden Blace earns first BCHL goal and game-winner

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

Paramedic Matthew Schlatter of Victoria is living a fuller life today due to the double lung transplant he received in 2019. He encourages B.C. residents to register as an organ donor and let their families know their wishes. (Instagram/Matthew Schlatter)
B.C. man living a full, active life after double-lung transplant

Matt Schlatter encourages people to register as an organ donor to help others live

(Photo by Mojpe/Pixabay)
Canadian kids extracting record amounts from Tooth Fairy

Our neighbours in the U.S. receive slightly less from Tooth Fairy visits

Families of two of three workers killed in a train derailment near Field, B.C., in 2019 have filed lawsuits accusing Canadian Pacific of gross negligence. The derailment sent 99 grain cars and two locomotives off the tracks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Families of workers killed in Field train derailment allege negligence in lawsuit

Lawsuits allege the workers weren’t provided a safe work environment

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read