Why can't BC just ban people from entering the province?

Feb 4 2021, 1:37 pm

If you want to get an ordinary British Columbian fuming mad these days, you need only do one thing: Point to a vehicle with an out-of-province licence plate.

The idea that people from other provinces and countries are visiting here in the middle of a pandemic, carelessly bringing with them more contagious strains of COVID-19 while we all hunker down at home and avoid visiting our closest family and friends, has been a highly-charged issue for months.

It inevitably leads to a question that’s asked almost every time Premier John Horgan holds a public appearance: Why don’t we just ban non-essential people from entering BC? 

Or, at the very least, why don’t we make out-of-province folks quarantine until we’re sure they don’t have the virus before we let them mingle with the rest of the population?

You rarely get a straight answer to that question. 

But here it is: BC could do it if it really wanted to.

But it’s not going to.

Because, so far, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry doesn’t think it would help.

“Until such time as the public health officer advises me that there’s a benefit to going down that road, we’re going to leave it untravelled for the time being,” Horgan said recently.

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Henry’s hesitation seems to fly in the face of the preconception that Americans, Albertans and others have managed to secretly slide into the country and are partying it up with reckless abandon while we all suffer miserably under the social gathering restrictions.

You do see the occasional case of, say, a Calgary family on the slopes at Whistler.

But on the whole, Henry has told Horgan that “much of current interprovincial travel is work related and therefore cannot be restricted.”

That essential interprovincial work is what keeps your grocery store stocked with items not grown in BC and all our other goods flowing across the country. Cut that off and we starve — or worse, all the stuff you order on Amazon gets delayed indefinitely.

So, there are major drawbacks.

But, that aside, could the province still do it?

Yes, if the Premier wanted, he could cut off non-essential visitors from other provinces and make the absolutely essential workers quarantine for two weeks to prove they didn’t have COVID-19 before they were allowed into British Columbia.

The Atlantic Bubble

Other provinces have already proven this is possible, including the four Maritime provinces that teamed up last year to create the “Atlantic Bubble” where non-essential travel was banned and everyone else had to self-isolate for two weeks.

That emboldened Manitoba, which brought in its own travel restrictions last week that also require anyone who wants to visit to quarantine for 14 days first.

Those moves have resulted in much hand wringing from lawyers who warn it violates our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which ensures Canadians can travel freely between provinces.

But the charter also lets governments infringe on those rights with justifiable limits in an emergency.

The bubble survived one court challenge in Newfoundland and Labrador on those grounds, after a judge ruled that preventing the spread of COVID-19 during the greatest health crisis of our time constituted a reasonable infringement of our rights.

That gives Horgan a clear lane to bring in BC travel rules if he wanted.

Let’s say, for a second, he did. How would it work?

Here too we hit some major problems.

The first would be that air travel is federally-regulated, and BC would need to have Ottawa’s permission to start cancelling or turning flights from international locations like Hawaii, London or China.

The federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has its own ideas on what to do, and just last week ordered certain flights from Mexico and the Caribbean be suspended until May.

Federal versus provincial

If BC wants to go further, Ottawa isn’t listening.

Worse, Ottawa isn’t particularly helpful in the tasks it’s supposed to handle by itself.

Horgan pointed out that when the federal government began restricting international flights at the start of the pandemic last year it was such a logistical nightmare that BC had to pitch in with its own employees to help.

At one point, the parliamentary secretary in charge, Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon, started pulling shifts at Vancouver International Airport with a clipboard to help monitor the situation.

“We had enough challenge with the international borders assisting Canada Border Services when we imposed the restrictions internationally,” said Horgan.

“We brought forward dozens and dozens of provincial employees to help backstop the federal initiative, and that’s their business. That’s what they do every day, is monitor the border where there are checkpoints.

“We have no checkpoints in BC So logistically, it would be a challenge. How would we monitor that?”

BC officials could get busy figuring out the logistics of securing thousands of kilometres of unguarded border with Alberta, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, Washington State, Idaho and Montana (yes, BC borders Montana, I’m surprised too).

Perhaps they could run some chicken wire through the never-ending stretch of bushes and mountains, dotted every few kilometres by ramshackle guard tents staffed by park rangers.

That wouldn’t cover the province’s more than 35 airports for short-haul domestic flights, and the almost limitless ways boaters could motor up the coast.

A massive task

BC has a far more difficult border to lock down and patrol than Manitoba or the Maritime provinces.

If it’s not logistically possible, what about just telling everyone the borders are closed, and hoping that symbolic gesture will deter people anyway?

Not interested, said the premier.

“If people are looking for symbolism, the symbolism we need is everyone banding together and putting pressure on those people who are disregarding the rules the rest of us are living by, and I think that will have a greater impact,” Horgan said last week.

So, to recap: BC could lock down its borders to people from other provinces if it wanted. But it won’t because most of the interprovincial travel right now is by essential workers. And even if it wanted to, it doesn’t have a clue how to go about the herculean effort of monitoring all its borders and entry-points.

Oh, and only Ottawa controls international flights.

Sounds like a lot.

But the most important part of those considerations remains Dr. Henry.

If she suddenly decided securing our borders would save lives, all the logistical problems just cited would go out the window and BC would somehow figure out how to get it done.

“If we see through public health that an increase in the number of people from outside of BC is contributing significantly to the increase in community outbreaks, we’ll take action,” Horgan said.

“We know what we would be required to do to put in place restrictions on internal travel. But we don’t believe it’s necessary at this time.”

Rob Shaw is Daily Hive’s political columnist. He’s also the political correspondent for CHEK News in Victoria, and a contributor to CBC Radio in Victoria and Kelowna. He’s spent the past 13 years covering BC politics for the Vancouver Sun and Victoria Times Colonist newspapers, and in 2018 co-authored the political book A Matter of Confidence.

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