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'I saw her cry for 7 months': cancelled flights to Mexico prompt anxiety over family separation, migrant workers

The three-month cancellation of Canadian flights to Mexico and the Caribbean has prompted anxiety over family separation and fears the measures could interrupt the flow of migrant workers and lead to a North America-wide recession
Stuck in Colombia
Burnaby's Juliana Arenas travelled to Colombia so her daughter, Olivia, could meet her grandmother, Gabriela Montes, while she undergoes chemotherapy. After new travel restrictions were announced Friday, the family doesn't know how or when they'll be able to return to Canada.

The cancellation of Canadian flights to Mexico has cast doubt over the future of all air traffic between the two countries, prompting anxiety over family separation and fears the measures could interrupt the flow of migrant workers and lead to a spiralling economic recession.

In the hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Air Transat would suspend flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30, Mexican Consul General Berenice Diaz Ceballos was on the phone with Mexico’s largest carrier, Aeromexico, hopeful she could fall back on the airline for essential trips to and from the country.

But those hopes have been thrown into question, as the airline weighs whether it too will cancel flights. 

“Everything is completely uncertain. One day they tell you something and two hours later, it changes,” said Diaz Ceballos. “Things will be very complicated for everyone.”


Diaz Ceballos and her team at the Mexican consulate in Vancouver have been working closely with provincial authorities and migrant worker organizations to manage the quarantine of Mexican agricultural workers. 

Throughout much of the pandemic, the workers have been isolated upon arrival in a hotel in Richmond for two weeks, where they are delivered food and other necessities before they leave to work on farms across B.C.

“It’s a huge task for the consulate. We take care of the workers every day,” said Diez Ceballos.

Everyone involved in the quarantine process is still working to understand how the new rules will affect migrant workers. On Friday, the Ministry of Transport clarified migrant workers would not have to pay the three-day, $2,000 hotel bill soon to be footed by incoming travellers as they wait for the results of a PCR test, according to a report from iPolitics.

Still, new federal travel restrictions rolled out earlier this month have already placed a heavy burden on migrant workers, according to Dennis Juarez, the head of Mosaic’s migrant workers program. 

Juarez’s team runs educational programs during migrant workers’ hotel quarantine period to help them navigate daily life and paperwork in Canada. 

But before coming to Canada, the essential workers must receive a negative result on a molecular COVID-19 test. 

“Many of them live in rural parts of Mexico,” said Juarez. “It’s not only the cost of the test, it’s also the three or four hours commute into the city … paying for hotels for three nights waiting for the test to come back.” 

Diaz Ceballos says at least two flights of agricultural workers arrive in Vancouver every week, and that 80% to 90% of the people on those flights are temporary workers bound for province’s greenhouses and fields — the headwaters of the region’s food supply chain.  

And while Diaz Ceballos says she respects the Canadian decision, her colleagues in Mexico are concerned the response could lead to an economic crisis for the entire region.

In response to the measures announced by Trudeau Friday, the office of the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs called for their removal “as soon as possible in order to prevent a deep economic recession in the North American region.”


The full-scale severing of scheduled flights between the two countries could still leave the door open to charter flights for migrant workers. But for the other 25,000-plus Mexican nationals living in B.C., there is little recourse for essential travel. 

“They need to go to Mexico to visit family, they have to solve economic issues, sell a house or deal with a legal situation,” said Diaz Ceballos. “The worst scenario is that we cannot do anything.”

Aeromexico did not respond to requests to confirm the future status of flights to and from Canada.

Mexican nationals living in B.C. aren't the only essential travellers left in the lurch. The planned cancellation of flights to the region has left many families across Latin America wondering when they’ll see each other next. 

When Burnaby resident Juliana Arenas gave birth to her daughter in April last year, her mother had long planned to fly up from Colombia to help with the baby. Then the borders shut and all those plans were put on hold. 

“I saw her cry for seven months. She has cancer and couldn’t meet her newborn granddaughter,” said Arenas. 

Arenas quarantined herself at home for the next eight months of the pandemic. Then in November, the whole family — including her 8-year-old daughter and baby — came down with COVID-19. Arenas’s husband, a construction worker, had picked up the virus at work and brought it home.

“I was worried for me, I was worried for my kids,” she said. “If he doesn’t work, who will bring the food? At the moment, work is so precious. I cannot blame him.” 

By the time the family had recovered, Arenas weighed the family’s ostensible immunity with a growing concern her mother — still in chemotherapy — would never get a chance to meet her granddaughter. 

“It was essential travel to me,” she said. “Today you are fine. But tomorrow you don’t know.” 

Three weeks ago, Arenas boarded a flight to Colombia with her two children in tow. Since then, they’ve kept themselves locked inside her mother’s home in the mountainous regional capital of Manizales, roughly halfway between the cities of Bogota and Medellin.

“I have been only at home. I don’t see friends I don’t see anybody else,” she said from her mother's house.

Arenas is scheduled to return to Vancouver via Mexico on Friday, Feb. 5, but she says she hasn’t yet heard from Aeromexico, and it’s not clear if her flight will be cancelled or if new quarantine rules that require a PCR test on arrival and a $2,000 hotel stay will be in place by the time she returns.

“I’m worried. I want to go back to Canada now. My daughter’s away from school for a month,” she said. “I don’t have money to pay $2,000 for the hotel.” 

And while Arenas sympathizes with the latest travel restrictions, she and many others like her are living proof that not everyone travels south to sip cocktails on the beach.

She added: “I know that a lot of people want to close the border. I know that is one of the solutions we have for this. But everyone who is away from Canada isn’t relaxing, passing the winter away. I want to be here for my mom who’s sick.” 


SFU infectious disease researcher Caroline Colijn has been calling for stricter quarantine measures for weeks after modelling she conducted showed explosive growth of the U.K. variant in B.C. should it become established. 

“My heart goes out to those people who do have an essential reason to travel there,” she said, while understanding why the government would want to dissuade non-essential travel to sun destinations.

Equally important, said Colijn, is to impose interprovincial travel restrictions to prevent the U.K. variant from spilling across provincial lines, a move B.C. Premier John Horgan shot down last week after seeking a legal opinion on the prospect of banning non-essential travel.

Ontario has already confirmed over 50 cases of the U.K. variant, or B.1.1.7., with several hundred more cases of the variant thought to be linked to outbreaks in two long-term care homes in Barrie and Bradford-West Gwillimbury, both north of Toronto.

“Chances they’re going to get a lid on that is pretty low,” she said of the latest cluster of cases in Ontario.