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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing border quarantine regulations in February 2021The Canadian Press Postmedia/ YouTube

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LifeSiteNews note: This article was originally published in National Post on February 16, 2021. Please bear this in mind when considering time periods and dates mentioned in the article. Reprinted with permission.

March 12, 2021 (National Post) —  A return to Canada from travels abroad could land you in one of the federal government’s isolation hotels, dystopian-looking places sheathed in plastic, with meals delivered to your door and only minutes of fresh air per day.

There has been ongoing confusion around the rules at Canada’s airports since the beginning of the pandemic. Who can fly and who cannot? Testing or not? In early January, the government brought in rules that required air travellers to have a negative COVID test on arrival at Canada’s airports. Then, two weeks ago, came the announcement of a mandatory, 72-hour hotel quarantine for all international travellers — at their own expense. On Friday, it was revealed these government-approved, privately operated hotels will come online on Feb. 22.

Yet, more than 5,000 people have already been whisked off to government isolation facilities since the start of the pandemic. Operated by Public Health Canada, these “last resort” facilities — for people who lacked proper COVID tests, or a safe place to isolate for 14 days — are hardly what one would describe as a relaxing home-away-from-home.

The specific locations and many other details — from who’s providing the food to whether smokers can step outside for a cigarette — have been kept secret by the government.

Angelo Vanegas says he spent 14 days quarantined at one of the designated facilities in Calgary after returning from a visit with family in Mexico in mid-January. He told the National Post he was whisked away from the Calgary airport to the facility in a vehicle with blacked-out windows.

“You can’t see the driver or anything. Once you arrive at the facility they start telling you the rules … you’re not allowed to order UberEats or Skip The Dishes, you’re not allowed to tell the location to even your own family,” Vanegas said.

What landed him there? Before flying back to Canada, Vanegas says he paid around US$200 in Mexico for a COVID test that he was assured would be acceptable, and had hoped to spend his quarantine at home. The test wasn’t accepted and the screening officer at the Calgary airport told him he would need to quarantine in a hotel, Vanegas said.

At the hotel, he says he had literally nothing to do. Three meals a day were delivered, though he described them as small portions. He got 15 minutes outside per day, but because of an infected toenail that eventually necessitated a hospital visit, he wasn’t able to take advantage of it. There was wifi, but of the shoddy quality you’d expect from a hotel. Vanegas used his phone’s data.

“There was nothing to do, you were not allowed to talk to the security guard, you were not allowed to talk to other guests,” he said.

Phoning his family, he said, was “what actually kept me alive, from the misery.”

There are 11 of the government-operated quarantine sites in nine cities across the country, plus two more operated by provinces or territories. The sites are in: Whitehorse, Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Fredericton, Halifax and St. John’s.

As of Jan. 24, the federal government says 717 people have been quarantined at designated sites in British Columbia, 215 in Alberta, four in Saskatchewan and 112 in Manitoba. A further 790 have been quarantined in Quebec, 78 across the Atlantic provinces, and three in the Yukon. There have been 3,111 people held in one in Ontario.

Federal public health officials declined to answer the National Post‘s questions about these quarantine facilities, including: who is providing security at the sites, how much time people can spend outside, are there smoking and non-smoking rooms, are they manned by hotel staff or public health staff, who is providing the food at the hotels?

They also did not answer whether any of these hotels will be the same hotels participating in the mandatory 72-hour quarantine program for all international travellers as of Feb. 22.

Other stories of miserable stays in these facilities have been reported on social media, with some referring to them as secret camps in Canada.

Such reports prompted the Public Health Agency of Canada to take to Twitter to dispel misinformation. “Federally designated quarantine sites, typically hotel rooms, are not internment camps,” the tweet said.

But confusion around the quarantine centres, combined with the secrecy of the facilities, has continued to capture attention, while raising questions around constitutional freedoms.

Steven Duesing spent almost three days — he figures a little more than 60 hours — at a site in Toronto. He arrived in late January, and expected his negative test from the United States to be enough to get him to his home to quarantine. After several checkpoints and questions, he ended up on a bus to a Toronto hotel. It took three hours from leaving the plane to get to his hotel room, he said.

“Definitely wasn’t a good experience, or a quick one,” Duesing said in an interview. “The food was horrible. They were very angry when I tried to take pictures or video.”

Nikki Mathis, a pastor at Edmonton’s The Summit Church, was whisked off to a quarantine hotel after coming back from a business trip to Dallas. In a Facebook post dated Jan. 28, her husband, Chris, said police and health officials wouldn’t tell him where she was going.

“I pushed, I questioned, I tried to fight, but they said they would arrest her if she resisted. They would NOT give me any information on where they were taking my wife,” Chris Mathis wrote. “You can imagine I am barely keeping myself together wondering what in the world has happened in our country in what seems to be overnight.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney suggested the process should be less secretive, writing on Facebook earlier this month that health authorities “could avoid a lot of anger and confusion if they were more transparent about where people will be staying, etc.”

In early February, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wrote to the federal government with concerns about the new quarantine regime mandating three days in an approved hotel for all international travellers.

The policy “appears to be premised on the risk that individuals will not safely self-isolate at home,” the letter says. “Is this a hypothetical risk or empirically demonstrable?”

Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the CCLA, said the concerns are about how the costs might affect those who need to spend time quarantined, and that the policy appears to be meant to deter travel, and whether or not that fairly considers why people might be leaving the country.

“At this stage in the pandemic, we just have questions about why now and why this?” Zwibel said.

Those who are allowed to leave their mandatory hotel quarantine, either to finish quarantine at home or elsewhere, are then subject to follow-up checks done by private security to make sure they’re abiding by their quarantine plan. The federal government has contracts with four companies, the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, G4S Secure Solutions Ltd., Garda Canada Security Corporation and Paladin Risk Solutions.

These companies will do checks in 35 cities across the country to confirm travellers are quarantining properly. They started doing such checks in Montreal and Toronto, as of Jan. 29.

In a scenario where people do not have a safe place to isolate — they are living in a group setting or with vulnerable family members — or who cannot afford a 14-day hotel stay, they may be eligible to transfer to one of the 11 government isolation facilities.

With more details provided on Friday by the federal government on border rules and restrictions, this much seems clear: for many international travellers, their travel ordeal is far from over once they land at the airport. Multiple COVID tests and checks, and now mandatory hotel quarantines to await results. And for the unlucky, welcome to the hotel of last resort.

Material republished with the express permission of: National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.