After controversial Quebec headline about '8,000 Jews' arriving at border, feds push back
The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on Friday, February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
OTTAWA -- The federal government is pushing back on reporting by a Quebec news outlet that raised fears about Passover gatherings, while the province's premier found his own way to respond to the story.
Premier François Legault says he's worried about all gatherings that could take place in the coming days, for both Easter and Passover.
He was asked to comment after a controversial TVA News interview Friday in which Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the union representing customs workers, said there had been around 8,000 people at the border post of Lacolle in the last 48 hours.
According to Fortin, many of these people were Jewish. He said they were coming to Canada for Passover, which begins Saturday, and claimed they weren't going to isolate themselves for 14 days.
TVA News advertised this interview with a banner on Friday that read "8,000 Jews in 48 hours at the border," sparking backlash on social media.
A government source in Ottawa provided some important context on the numbers involved.
"The information reported is not accurate," wrote spokesperson Jacqueline Callin from the Canadian Border Services Agency.
From March 24 to 25, she wrote, a total of 7,557 travelers entered Quebec, but through all ports of entry combined "and not only at the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing."
It wasn't clear if that referred to all the land crossings, or also included ports of entry by air, meaning airports.
In any case, this figure is comparable to previous weeks.
The majority of trips are made by essential workers, the government said. For example, across Canada, truckers accounted for 63 per cent of land border entries in the past 48 hours.
Callin also wrote that the vast majority of those crossing the border by land, 93 per cent, are exempt from the 14-day quarantine because they belong to this category of essential worker.
About 74 per cent work in trade or transportation, such as truck drivers, while another 19 per cent cross the border regularly to go to their normal place of employment, such as "critical infrastructure workers" or, in some regions, health-care workers who can work across the border under the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement.
There are close ties between Hasidic Jewish communities in New York City and the Montreal area, and before COVID, families would often cross the border for major holidays.
But in TVA's written coverage, it walked back some of the union's claims, saying the CBSA data didn't seem unusual, and pointing out that there are also many snowbirds crossing the border.
The union president was also angry, the outlet wrote, about an alleged lack of training for urgently hired new staff and he said there wasn't enough follow-up being done on travellers who were mandated to quarantine.
Legault avoided commenting on the specific question of whether people are flocking to Canada for Passover, saying he's worried about holidays in general.
"Certainly that worries us, and Easter and Passover, because it is an occasion to come together and there is a risk that is associated with Easter. It's coming, and now is not the right time," said the premier.
"A bit like we experienced with the school break, there will be a test to pass with Easter and Passover. What I'm asking is [for people] to follow the rules," he said.
One rule was just eased today, however. Legault said that places of worship, where up to 250 people can gather in Quebec as of Friday, will be carefully monitored in the coming days.
Borders, he stressed, are the responsibility of the federal government.
Right now, people arriving at the land border who are not exempted as essential workers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the last three days and demonstrate plans for their quarantine.
One Ottawa official said, when asked about the controversy, said the border restrictions are still in place and apply to all foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens.
"The rules haven't changed. There is no tourism that is allowed at the borders with the United States," said Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc, when he was asked about the union's claims.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021, with files from CTV staff.