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Coronavirus: Should Canada restrict travel between provinces, territories?

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As the world continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic, many countries — including Canada — have closed their borders and have implemented stringent travel measures.

But as the number of cases in Canada continues to rise, many are wondering if it may be time to restrict travel between provinces and territories to stem the spread of the virus.

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On Sunday, Yukon reported its first two cases of COVID-19.

As a result, Yukon’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brendan Hanley, “strongly” advised that all non-essential travel into and out of Yukon be suspended.

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Asked by reporters if the federal government is looking into implementing such restrictions Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is scheduled to speak with premiers Monday evening about “measures that we can take as a country to move forward.”

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“I look forward to that conversation,” he said.

Should the government limit travel between provinces and territories? How would it be enforced?

Here’s what experts say.

Could the government do this?

Section 6 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms affords Canadian citizens the right to enter, remain in and leave the country.

It also affords citizens and permanent residents the right to “move to and take up residence in any province and to purse to gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

But Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor from the University of Waterloo, said there have been “very few instances” where the government has been able to infringe on these rights.

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He said in this case, the courts might allow a ban on non-essential travel between provinces if the government could demonstrate a significant risk of spreading COVID-19.

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“So the context of a health emergency certainly provides the government with the reasonable limit argument,” he said. “But the government probably wants to look at the evidence about how many people are unnecessarily travelling between provinces right now.”

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One way the government could implement such restrictions is by declaring a federal emergency and implementing the Emergencies Act.

The act would give the government the right to regulate or prohibit travel to, from or within areas “where necessary for the protection of health and safety of individuals.”

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However, MacFarlane says any federal rule brought in under the Emergencies Act would require provincial implementation.

“So the federal government can set a rule, but it is often at the whim of the province to see it implemented, and that would definitely be the case here,” he said. “If they’re thinking about it, then they almost certainly have discussed this with the provinces, at least as an option.”

But on Sunday, Trudeau said Canada was not in a position where implementing the Emergencies Act was necessary, saying the federal government was continuing to “work closely” with its provincial counterparts.

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Is closing provincial borders necessary?

Craig Janes, director of the school of public health at the University of Waterloo, said Canada should be restricting travel between provinces and territories.

He said with community spread, the number of cases could increase “exponentially.”

“Anything that we can do to just stop people moving around is going to reduce the amount of transmission and slow it,” Janes said. “And that gives health systems the ability to respond without getting overwhelmed.”

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of 11 a.m. ET on Monday, there were more than 1,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with the majority of infections reported in Ontario and B.C.

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However, MacFarlane said the government is likely taking more of a “wait and see approach.”

He said in a week or so, the country will have a better idea whether the current social distancing measures in place have been effective.

“I think if we see the rate of spread continue to climb, particularly if it continues to climb in that exponential way, then the government’s going to have to start to look at more stringent measures and more draconian rules to try to deal with that,” he said.  “If we see things start to flatten out, then it may be unnecessary to bring in these more severe measures.”

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How would it be enforced?

According to MacFarlane, if the government does choose to restrict travel, enforcement would fall to provincial and federal police authorities.

But, while it would be easy for police to monitor major highways and routes, MacFarlane said the measures would be “quite difficult,” to enforce.

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He said it would be impossible to stop everyone who is “determined to break the law.”

“We’re talking about such enormous stretches of land between the various provinces, that it would be quite difficult,” he said.

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Janes too said enforcement will never be 100 per cent effective, but that the government can convince citizens to comply by “communicating clearly” why the measures are necessary and important.

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“I think this is really critical in this case,” he said.

Would travel restrictions between provinces impact the flow of goods?

In an email to Global News, Marc Fortin, president at the Retail Council of Canada in Quebec said they “don’t expect there will be a big impact on food supply” if travel restrictions between provinces were to be implemented.

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“There will be previsions in place by governments, similar to the U.S. restrictions which apply to people but not commerce, to maintain the flow of services and goods, especially if they are essential like food and pharma,” he wrote.

Fortin said regionally there may be a shift in buying patterns in places such as Ottawa and Gatineau, because Canadians won’t cross from one province to another to shop.