OTTAWA — Five national interest exemptions covering 1,458 people have been signed by the federal immigration minister alone since the onset of the pandemic, his office confirmed late Thursday — a day after an official gave outdated information at a House of Commons committee meeting.
National interest exemptions allow travellers to enter Canada and skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine. They can be authorized by senior public health officials, a handful of cabinet ministers and the prime minister.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) spokesperson Shannon Ker told HuffPost Canada the minister has signed off on five national interest exemptions, bringing the total number of people covered under these exemptions to 1,458 people.
“All of these were done in close consultation with our officials at [Public Health Agency of Canada] and with strong measures in place to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said Ker.
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The statement updates a number offered by an IRCC official at a House of Commons’ committee Wednesday.
When asked by Conservative immigration critic Raquel Dancho how many national interest exemptions he’s granted, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino did not have an answer. He deferred the question to a department official, who told members that 1,300 national interest exemptions have been granted.
Mendicino’s office later told The Canadian Press that the official “misspoke.”
His office said four exemptions, which cover players, staff, and some third-party vendors of the National Hockey League (1,200 people), Major League Baseball (20 people), and Major League Soccer, have been granted (134 people for pre-season training, 104 people for pre-playoff training).
Ker said the most recent exemption “was granted later in November so it wasn’t within the timeframe that our official gave at committee.”
According to documents tabled in the House of Commons last week, the most recent exemption was granted to Major League Soccer on Nov. 10 for pre-playoff training.
An overwhelming majority are professional athletes, including 1,200 people associated with the NHL.
Exemptions are granted “on the basis that the league has a comprehensive public health plan approved by the PHAC and has obtained written commitment from implicated provinces and municipalities supporting the league’s proposed risk mitigation measures,” according to documents.
“The issuance of exemptions in these five cases was considered to be in the national interest given the importance of professional sports to Canada’s society and economy,” the department wrote in its response explaining why athletes got a pass from a mandatory quarantine.
“The presence of these individuals in Canada to practice and play their respective sports was deemed to support economic growth and recovery, social cohesion, national pride, and the beginning of a positive return to normalcy.”
At least 1,607 people total exempted from mandatory quarantine order
Canada closed its borders to most non-citizens in mid-March to stem the risk of traveller-related introduction of the novel coronavirus, and potential further domestic transmission.
A mandatory 14-day quarantine order for out-of-country travellers was issued in April. It was amended in June to allow departments “with national interest authority” to enforce conditions on any approved exemption.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has issued 140 individual national interest exemptions as of Oct. 5.
Nineteen of those were issued before rules were changed in June. After the order was revised, 121 exemptions were granted.
The documents do not indicate how many exemptions have been granted by the health minister, senior public health officials, or the prime minister.
According to documents, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair approved nine national interest exemptions as of September.
Five were granted in May to family members so they could attend the funeral of a Canadian Armed Forces member. The following month, three exemptions were approved “to individuals employed in the shipbuilding industry related to a Government of Canada defence project.”
One exemption was granted by the public safety minister in September because a witness in a criminal case was denied an application to testify remotely.
When asked which court denied the remote testimony application, a public safety spokesperson declined to provide the information, telling HuffPost Canada “privacy concerns prevent the release of information that could be used to identify the individual.”