Exclusive: Canada may lift international student travel restrictions

Kareem El-Assal
Published: July 28, 2020

Canada is looking at possibly easing travel restrictions for international students in time for the fall 2020 semester.

This is revealed in a letter that has been obtained by CIC News.

Since March 18, international students have not been able to enter Canada unless they held a study permit that was valid as of that date. A few days ago, students from the U.S. were added to the list of exemptions, though they must meet certain criteria to be able to enter Canada.

The undated letter is signed by Canada's immigration minister Marco Mendicino, and health minister, Patty Hajdu, however it asks recipients to reply to the letter by Friday July 24, 2020.

The purpose of the letter is for the two ministers to engage in a dialogue with Canada's provincial and territorial governments, as well as designated learning institutions (DLIs), about ways to safely welcome more international students to Canada within the coming months.

DLIs are the colleges, universities, and other educational institutions that are permitted by federal and provincial governments to welcome international students.

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Under Canada's Constitution, education falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. Unlike other countries, Canada does not have a federal education department, which means that Canada's international student policies are spread across multiple federal departments. When the federal government wants to make a decision on international students, it consults with the provinces and territories to get their input.

In this case, the federal government has imposed travel restrictions, an issue which falls under its jurisdiction. The travel restrictions, which are meant to contain the coronavirus, impede the ability of provinces and territories to welcome international students.

In their letter, however, ministers Mendicino and Hajdu write that they recognize how important international students are to Canada's learning environment, society, and economy.

As such, they are looking to strike a balance between respecting the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories over education, while also maintaining Canada's special coronavirus measures to limit further spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, the ministers explain that the two levels of government and DLIs "...must collectively commit to and adopt a coordinated, clear, and well-communicated approach to support the health and safety of students and the Canadian public."

To this end, the federal government will be issuing public safety guidance on how the country can welcome more international students. The guidance outlines expectations for students, governments, and DLIs in supporting this objective.

For example, students will remain required by law to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Canada.

Provinces and territories as well as DLIs are expected to comply with public health orders and guidance.

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Information sought by ministers Mendicino and Hajdu

The two ministers ask recipients to provide a list of information to them by Friday July 24 to confirm whether their jurisdiction is ready to host a new cohort of international students and their immediate family members. Immediate family is defined as spouses and common-law partners, dependent children, parents and step-parents, and guardians.

Information sought included:

  • a list of DLIs in each jurisdiction that has been approved in accordance with public health requirements and business resumption plans for operation and for hosting students
  • there are protocols in place to implement and monitor Canada's mandatory 14-day quarantine by the DLIs and ensuring that students have:
    • appropriate transportation to the DLI
      • a suitable place to quarantine (and with access to supplies, food, prescriptions, and other necessary support)
      • students will not have contact with vulnerable individuals
      • quarantine accommodation will enable physical distancing with infection-prevention control protocols in place
    • information on physical and mental health supports available to international students
  • each jurisdiction's responsibility and readiness to ensure compliance with the requirements of provincial and local public health authorities
  • a risk mitigation plan to test, trace, and isolate COVID-19 and prevent its spread
  • active outreach and communications with DLIs and respective communities on expectations, roles, and responsibilities to maintain public health guidelines
  • a commitment for collaboration and information sharing between the two levels of government to monitor and manage coronavirus-related risks of international students in Canada.

Given the evolving nature of the pandemic, Mendicino and Hajdu note that the involved stakeholders will likely need to continue to adjust their approach to ensure they uphold the health and safety of Canadians and international students.

The full letter is available here.

What does this letter mean?

The letter does not necessarily mean that Canada will exempt more international students from its current travel restrictions any time soon. However, it strongly suggests that Canada will go ahead and introduce new exemptions for international students as long as it is safe to do so, and if it receives confirmation from respective provinces and territories, as well as DLIs that they are equipped to welcome more foreign students.

Canada's travel restrictions are in effect until July 31. 

Hence, we may learn within the coming days whether Canada will go ahead and introduce the exemptions for students.

Canada has been able to flatten the coronavirus curve since the crisis began in the middle of March. Canada's low coronavirus numbers are due to its strict public health measures which include in part the limitation of travel from abroad.

Canada is now in the fortunate position where it can at least consider welcoming more foreign students. Prior to the pandemic, it hosted over 640,000 students who contributed $22 billion to the economy and supported some 170,000 jobs each year.

Even if students are unable to come to Canada in the near future, they can still benefit from a host of new policies that are in place to help international students achieve their Canadian immigration goals.

For example, Canada has a new two-step study permit process in place that allows students to get pre-approval for their study permits so they can begin their Canadian programs online at a DLI. They would then be able to come to Canada assuming they submit a completed study permit application which gets approved, and travel restrictions for them are lifted. Moreover, students can study online and have that time count towards their Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) eligibility. The PGWP can then help them become eligible for Canadian permanent residence.

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