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

Nineteen-year-old Amanda enjoys a ride during a visit to Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler. photo submitted
Busy days at Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler

The ranch, which launched operations last summer, provides support through animal interaction

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta passes bill to give all workers paid leave to get COVID-19 vaccine shot

Labour Minister Jason Copping says Bill 71 will reduce barriers for Alberta workers to get vaccinated

Stettler County
County of Stettler meeting highlights

County of Stettler council was presented with six separate bylaws at varying stages of progress

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Alberta bill would protect health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

The bill proposes exempting a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators, from being sued over COVID-19 unless it was for gross negligence

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming to boost financial literacy among students

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

FILE - Dan Smyers, left, and Shay Mooney from the band Dan + Shay perform on NBC's Today show in New York on June 28, 2019. The duo will perform at Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
Luke Bryan wins top ACM Award, but female acts own the night

Luke Bryan wins top ACM Award, but female acts own the night

In this undated photo provided by John-Paul Hodnett are a row of teeth on the lower jaw of a 300-million-year-old shark species named this week following a nearly complete skeleton of the species in 2013 in New Mexico. Discoverer Hodnett says it was the short, squat teeth that first alerted him to the possibility that the specimen initially dubbed "Godzilla Shark" could be a species distinct from it's ancient cousins, which have longer, more spear-like teeth. The image was taken using angled light techniques that reveal fossil features underneath sediment. (John-Paul Hodnett via AP)
‘Godzilla’ shark discovered in New Mexico gets formal name

The ancient chompers looked less like the spear-like rows of teeth of related species

Most Read