Coming back to Canada: A pandemic odyssey

Canadian Geographic’s assistant editor on her journey home.

  • Jul 17, 2020
  • 1,228 words
  • 5 minutes
A seagull takes flight from a wooden post at Jericho Beach, Vancouver, B.C. (Photo: Abi Hayward)
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On June 1, I penned an email to Canadian Geographic’s editor-in-chief Aaron Kylie. The subject: “Coming back to Canada.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into isolation in March, I made the decision to return to Yorkshire, U.K., where I was born. I was nearing the end of a six-month fellowship at The Walrus and was nervous about the uncertainty of the job market, especially in the field of journalism where people were being laid off left, right and centre. I sublet my apartment in Vancouver and packed my bags. I didn’t expect, later that spring, to land a dream job at Canadian Geographic.

I knew I needed to get back to Canada (it was part of my contract, for starters). Can Geo were very supportive, given the circumstances. In all-staff meetings we joked about the establishment of an international bureau of the magazine in Yorkshire. But I felt like a fraud working for Canada’s national geography magazine, while not actually being in Canada. Like everyone else, the lockdown gave me a lot of time with my own thoughts. I felt torn between these two geographies: the island where I had grown up, and this new country with the life I had built for myself. Working in a different time zone was exhausting, I missed my independence, my apartment, my friends. The trouble was: how to come back. Was it even legal?

While in Yorkshire, Hayward and her sister went on lots of walks around York, U.K. (Photo: Gemma Hayward)
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After sifting through information from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Canadian Border Service Agency, I determined I’d be allowed back into the country. While I’m not a permanent resident, I normally live in Canada and I have a valid work permit. I’d be considered a temporary worker and my travel would be considered essential. Check.

I booked a flight with Air Transat for July 2. Less than two weeks later, it was unceremoniously cancelled, a few days after an email came from the airline boasting that they were resuming services on July 23. I was given a credit. I learned that, in the U.K., if an airline cancels a flight within 14 days of departure, they are obligated to compensate the passenger, or make alternative arrangements: hence the cancellation. I booked another flight for July 4 with a different company with the help of my cousin, a pilot. Less than 24 hours later, it was likewise cancelled. Luckily this one I could change. I moved it to July 16. On Canada Day, that flight was also cancelled. My friends made flight cancellation memes to cheer me up.

Hayward's friends in Vancouver made memes to cheer her up (Meme: V.S. Wells)
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I started to be more strategic, and scanned the skies through the internet to see which flights were successfully going to Canada. Air Canada seemed like a good bet. I took the plunge and booked a last minute flight. I had three days to pack.

Travelling down to London from York, a four hour drive, was nerve-wracking. My whole family decided to come, and I held my sister’s hand as we drove south. We didn’t know if the flight was going to go, if the airline would let me onto the plane, or even if border services would let me in on the other side, although I had printed off every conceivable piece of paperwork I could possibly need. We didn’t know whether this would be goodbye — and probably for a fair chunk of time, given the current state of the world.

When we arrived at the parking lot at Heathrow, we donned masks. I said goodbye to my family at the airport entrance, as only travellers could go beyond that point. I discovered masks serve a dual purpose as a tear sponge, as I dragged my suitcase towards Departures.

Hayward waits in the departure lounge for the gate to be announced. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo Travel)
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The queues moved efficiently through security, passengers spaced out two metres away from each other. I put my hand sanitizer into a clear plastic bag. A few minutes later, I was on the other side. 

“I got through security!!” I excitedly WhatsApped my roommate in Vancouver. “Looks like I’ll be good to go on the plane.”

A lone sparrow flitted around the departure lounge. I watched it as it sang atop the departures board, its chirrups emphatic against the otherwise subdued hall. Other passengers sat spaced out, maybe two people per row, wearing masks. Some chairs had been blocked off. With a flash of green, the departures board announced a gate for the flight to Vancouver. The sparrow flew off.

At the gate, an official pointed a temperature sensor at my head to check for a possible fever. Another asked to see my work permit again. I briefly removed my mask so they could double check I was still me. The ticket scanner beeped its approval. I walked down the gangway to the waiting plane.

The airplane waits at the gate. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo Travel)
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On the airplane, the crew were all wearing masks, with some wearing full-on disposable hazmat suits. They’d spaced all the passengers out as far as possible, the airline explained over the intercom, so everyone had to sit in their assigned seat. We were reminded to wash our hands regularly. A flight attendant handed me a package containing a disposable mask, gloves, some alcohol wipes and a bottle of water. “On the plane!!” I messaged my family group chat. “I have a row to myself!”

I would compare the flight experience to an elementary school trip, only we were on an airplane during a global pandemic, wearing masks and were mainly fully-grown adults. The air crew patrolled up and down, making sure everyone was wearing their masks correctly. “Madam!” cried a flight attendant in exasperation to a woman a few rows in front. “I’ve told you: you have to wear your mask over your nose and mouth!”

Unhooking my mask from one ear, I munched on a KitKat from the paper bag of food I had been given in place of the usual tray of airline food. “Madam!” A voice behind me made me jump out of my skin. “Oh, you’re eating. Sorry.” While it was kind of hilarious that the plane was being treated like a school bus of children, I felt reassured that the crew were actually enforcing the mask-mandatory policy that the airline had adopted.

Paper bag packed lunches are served in place of meals on trays. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo Travel)
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Nine hours later, we were in Vancouver. I was one of the first in the line at Immigration, and a border guard waved me forwards. I was asked where I came from (“the U.K.,” passing over my passport), what I was coming for (“Work,” sliding my work permit under the glass), what I did (“Journalism. And editing,” I added. “Journalism,” the guard repeated suspiciously. I stopped myself from making a comment about the state of the industry), whether I had any of the COVID-19 symptoms (“No, nope, no.”), what my plan for 14 days of self-quarantine was (“My roommate has bought me groceries. She’s moving out for two weeks.”).

“You are being served a mandatory quarantine order,” said the guard, officially, handing me a sheet of information from the Public Health Agency of Canada. I was told to go straight to my place of residence and to stay there for 14 days, monitoring myself for any symptoms. I nodded, waiting. “Bye,” said the officer bluntly.

Arriving at my apartment, panting after lugging my suitcase up two flights of stairs, I collapsed on my bed and took off my mask. I was home.

The author in quarantine (Photo: V.S. Wells)
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