March 25, 2020
Hon. François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Chair, Cabinet Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
OPEN LETTER RE: CONSULAR ASSISTANCE TO CANADIAND STRANDED ABROAD DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC
I am very appreciative of the continued information updates and advice from Global Affairs Canada about their efforts in assisting Canadians who are stranded abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been dealing with a large number of constituents and their loved ones who are making every good faith effort to heed the Prime Minister’s advice for Canadians to come home, and who require consular assistance and, in some cases, have made urgent requests for rescue flights or assistance in repatriating. As this work continues, I write to bring to your attention concerns that constituents with their direct experience abroad with during this difficult time.
1) Email from ROCA
I have heard from constituents who have been making every effort to communicate with officials, who are registered as advised with the Registry Of Canadians Abroad (ROCA) in order to receive updates about how to get home, and who have reported some worrying information about the communication that they receive. In one case, a constituent sent a screenshot of the communication that they received from ROCA about upcoming flights exiting Peru. The email they received thru ROCA said, in part:
“The purpose of this message is to inform you that the Embassy of Canada in Peru has coordinated with Air Canada the first three return flights to Canada:
- Tuesday March 24 (now sold out)
- Thursday March 25 (not available for purchase yet)
- Friday March 26 (not available for purchase yet)
The Embassy and its partners are currently working on arrangements for the Thursday and Friday flights. The flight details and the registration code will be shared by the Embassy through an email. Receiving this code does not guarantee you a seat on the flight.”
Constituents have reported that this kind of message is anything but reassuring. As one constituent said, “It seems really scary, like they know how many Canadians are there, but only sent a smaller amount of planes and are going to let them basically compete over buying [scarce] tickets and if they don’t get one tough luck!” He went on to write "I hope I am wrong about that."
Others have reported that they have not be able to get onto the system as it is overwhelmed as soon as the code is made available. And by the time they manage to get through, the tickets are sold out. I understand that officials are working hard to make arrangements for people stranded abroad. Given that people who have registered through the ROCA system, it follows that the government would be aware of approximately how many people are stranded in which country. Aside from need to address the technical aspect of the system, would it not make sense to, in the minimum, add a line to indicate that additional flights are being worked on beyond what is listed to assure the people who are not lucky enough to secure a ticket are not forgotten?
2) Permanent Residents Abroad
I have heard concerns that Canadian Permanent Residents travelling abroad cannot access consular assistance or receive information via the Registry of Canadians Abroad (ROCA), as Permanent Residents cannot register, and therefore are concerned that they will not receive timely information or consular assistance, and I urge you to consider how to address this.
3) Emergency Travel Loan
I have also heard from constituents who have attempted to access the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad in order to meet any immediate life-sustaining costs they face while stranded abroad or to ensure that they can pay any costs that they meet in their efforts to secure transportation home to Canada. I have been advised by a constituent that upon contact by Global Affairs to discuss his application for the emergency travel fund, the Global Affairs staff “said that he needed to do a pre-screening to determine whether or not they could receive the emergency travel fund. The questions included: do we have family or friends who could lend us money, have we tried to secure a line of credit, have we spoken to our banks for a loan, do we have credit cards that could support us, would either of our jobs advance us wages? We do have family who have offered to lend us money if we need it and we have some very modest savings, but we did not discuss anything in terms of a direct monetary amount. He said that this meant that we would not qualify for the emergency travel loan and that they would not continue to pursue our case.”
This was very worrying news as, in this particular constituent’s case, their employment – like that of so many others – has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they anticipate that it will be some time before their employment resumes. Therefore, it seemed prudent to them to pursue the emergency loan, rather than to drain the small collective savings that they and their family may have to live from for an unknown length of time during their work shutdown. This constituent also advised that, “Further to that, when I asked how these loans would be distributed, he said that there has been no directive communicated to him on how these loans will actually be distributed. At this point, it seems that the emergency loan for stranded travellers is some sort of vague idea of a loan that you probably can't get and they definitely can't deliver.”
In another example, if the traveller has spent their available emergency resources in trying to secure accommodation or food while awaiting transport home; or is a student or someone without large credits on their credit cards, given that the application for the loan is a long and involved, people simply would not be able to secure a seat to return home, based on the ROCA message they received.
This information is very concerning to me. I myself have shared the information about this emergency loan as provided by Global Affairs to my constituents, in good faith, so that they had that information at hand in case they needed to access the loan. I am alarmed to learn that the qualifiying criteria seems to be so restrictive and onerous that, in essence, many people would not be able to access the loan. As well time is of the essence in these unprecedented times. If the process and requirements are so limiting and onerous, how then can people realistically access the help they need in a timely fashion? I can't imagine the stress and anxiety of a stranded Canadian who in trying to follow the process outlined in the ROCA email missed out on securing a seat on flight because they don't have the financial means to do so. I note also that the tickets offered are expensive as they are not discounted fares. Could you please advise what is the qualifying criteria that has been set for the travel loan and what mechanism is in place to deliver the emergency loan assistance, and how long will that take to process?
4) 24/7 Emergency Assistance Telephone Number/Email
Finally, many constituents and their loved ones have reached out to me because they have been unable to get through to the 24/7 Emergency Assistance telephone number or email. While I understand the sheer volume of requests that continue to arrive to this line are no doubt stretching the Department’s capacity to respond, many are reporting that what seems like an automatic response gives them little assurance that the government is addressing the predicament that they are in. As well, their inability to get through the 24/7 Emergency Assistance telephone number only heightens their anxiety. I understand that the department has increased capacity for the 24/7 line, but it remains that it is insufficient to ensure that calls are getting through and emails are responded to with any meaningful assurance that their situation is being addressed.
Therefore, I ask that you address these urgent issues in providing emergency consular assistance to Canadian citizens and permanent residents who are stranded abroad. I thank you for your urgent attention to these matters and, as always, I stand ready to provide my assistance in these efforts.
MP for Vancouver East