Crossing home from the U.S. to Canada in a taxi at the end of July, Saadi Kadhum rolled down the window and pulled out his phone to show the border officer the email confirming his negative COVID-19 test.
But as he readied his thumbs to punch in his email password, he froze. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember it — a forgetful moment that would cost him $6,255 in fines.
Kadhum, 56, said he felt increasingly frazzled as he tried variation after variation with no luck, stuck on the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
“The officer was on me,” said Kadhum who works in the construction industry and lives in the Toronto area. “He wasn’t even letting me leave the taxi.”
Kadhum who’d gone to the U.S. to attend his daughter’s wedding a few days earlier, said he was eventually locked out of his email account and needed to access a computer to verify his identity.
“If they would’ve given me two, three minutes to go in the computer, we wouldn’t have this issue,” he said. “I’m not a young fellow who knows everything about technology.”
Ticket felt like only way to get home
Instead, Kadhum said he was given two options.
He could try to go back to the pharmacy to print out his test result, which actually wasn’t possible because he’d need to first show proof of the negative test, now out of reach behind email security, to re-enter the U.S.
Or he could go home, but be charged the maximum fine under the Quarantine Act — $5,000 plus “a victim fine surcharge and costs” under the offence: “failure to comply with an order prohibiting or subjecting to any condition the entry into Canada.” The total fine would be $6,255.
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Feeling like he had no choice, Kadhum said he accepted the ticket, seen by CBC News, plus 14 days of mandatory quarantine, despite providing proof he’s fully vaccinated through the government’s ArriveCan app, which he was still able to access on his phone. (Travellers are required to upload their vaccine documents through the app, but not COVID test results.)
That isolation period also meant two weeks of lost wages for Kadhum.
His case is one of several that’s been reported in recent days as Canada’s border with the U.S. reopens and travellers are required to navigate providing proof of vaccination, as well as a negative COVID-19 test conducted within 72 hours of crossing.
One man told CBC News he was forced to quarantine for 14 days even though he was denied entry into the U.S. and never actually crossed the border. Other fully vaccinated travellers say they’ve received dozens of calls and emails from the Canadian government asking them to verify they’re self-isolating even though they’ve been exempt from quarantine.
Traveller responsible for documents, CBSA says
The Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) said in email statement it is unable to comment on specific cases, but that officers have the authority to review, challenge and confirm travellers’ statements.
“Before making a decision a (border services officer) will review and consider each traveller’s unique circumstances, the purpose of the trip and the documents presented at the time of entry,” said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.
It’s up to the traveller to prove they meet the requirements to not quarantine, which includes providing a recent negative COVID-19 test at the border, she said.
The problems continued when Kadhum returned to his Ricmond Hill, Ont., home that night, unlocked his email and accessed the document verifying his negative test.
He said when he called the Public Health Agency of Canada and the CBSA the next day to provide the proof, they told him it was too late and there was nothing they could do. Public Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the next two weeks, Kadhum said public health officials called and came to his house to ensure he was complying with the order. He completed another COVID-19 test, which also came back negative, but was still under the two-week quarantine.
Kadhum is in the process of appealing the ticket through the court system, but wanted to share his story to warn other travellers — and remind them to print out all their documents just in case.
“I don’t want this to happen to any other Canadian,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
‘Unreasonable rigidity’ by CBSA, professor says
Kelly Sundberg, a professor at Mount Royal University, who worked for 15 years as a CBSA officer, said while travellers do have a responsibility to have their documents ready when crossing a border, Kadhum’s case demonstrates an “unreasonable rigidity.”
“If there’s zealous enforcement action being taken where there’s no flexibility and there’s no opportunity to provide information in an alternate means, where there’s no accommodating travellers’ needs, that’s concerning,” he said.
The CBSA, for example, could make computers available for the public to access electronic documents in case their cell phone batteries die during long journeys, or if they have technical problems like Kadhum, Sundberg suggested.
He also advocates for independent oversight of the CBSA, like other law enforcement agencies have in Canada. That way travellers could file complaints or refute penalties to an impartial body that could lead to improvements, he said.
While CBSA has always had a lot of power, Sundberg said the new and ever-changing COVID-19 travel rules demonstrate gaps in oversight and transparency.
“Frankly, it’s embarrassing,” Sundberg said. “If we had oversight, these issues would be dealt with in a much more amicable way instead of having to have this dealt with by the media and other services. It’s really unfortunate.”