When Joëlle Bruneau, a Quebec woman, gave birth in January, her husband wasn't with her. In fact, she said he didn't meet their daughter until she was two months old.
The couple's romance began in Honduras — he's from there, she's from the Laurentians — where Bruneau was taking a scuba diving course.
Almost two years after applying to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Bruneau said her husband is still waiting for his spousal visa to get through red tape.
Meanwhile, he's been denied a tourist visa four times — which means they can't return to Quebec without separating.
It's an issue only exacerbated by COVID-19.
Bruneau said her family was separated for five months before the Honduras border re-opened and she went to stay there.
"It seems the border is only open for immediate family members of Canadians coming from countries [that do] not [require] applying for a tourist visa," she told MTL Blog.
Bruneau is not alone in her struggle.
She's part of a global movement called Love Is Not Tourism, which fights for the "un-bureaucratic and safe reunion" of international lovers and families.
This has spawned local ad hoc organizations around the world.
In Canada, a Facebook group called "Spousal Sponsorship Advocates" has over 4,000 members.
A Change.org petition to "Reunite families [and] speed up the immigration process" has 15,000 signatures. And over 100 people took to the streets of Montreal on September 19 to protest, according to organizer Misha Pelletier.
On September 24, the Canadian government announced new measures to address these concerns. But some activists say it's not enough.
What's it like having a spouse in another country during the pandemic?
"There was no solution or plan B or C as we always had. We could only wait without knowing when we'd see each other again. It was really hard psychologically. [My husband] got depressed," Bruneau said.
When the Honduras border opened in August, and Bruneau made the decision to leave Canada — which she called her "safe place" — with her baby, she said it was far from easy.
The medical centre on the Island of Utila has limited resources, she said. To access a hospital with more extensive health care, you need to take a boat or a plane.
"COVID-19 had big consequences on the Honduran economy," she said. "There's also more people stealing now."
Bruneau said her husband's groceries were stolen three times, his clothes were snatched from the clothesline and her wallet was taken at a children's park.
"But it's really important to say there's also a lot of help between citizens. Fishermen give fish to people in need," she said.
What do activists want?
The main points stated in the petitions are:
- Creating a Special Temporary Resident Visa (STRV);
- Allowing spouses and children from visa-required countries to easily apply for the STRV online;
- Issuing and delivering multi-entry STRVs electronically and expediently;
- Increasing the processing capacity to handle the backlog of applications;
- Allocating a budget to expedite applications that exceed the 12-month spousal sponsorship timeline;
- Defining specific completion timeline targets for applications in process for 12 months or more; and
- Allowing spouses and children to visit Canada for the purpose of reunification and well-being during the sponsorship process.
But Bruneau told MTL Blog her hope is simply that "no other woman will have to give birth alone."
"The first smile, the first laugh. It's all lost. Even if we end by having the residency for my husband, we will never have back these magic moments that were stolen from us," she said.
How has the federal government responded?
On September 24, the IRCC announced it would be speeding up processing for spousal applications, increasing "the number of decision makers on spousal applications in Canada by 66%."
While advocates like MP Jenny Kwan see this as a step in the right direction, it only meets one of the demands outlined in the petitions.
Members of the Spousal Sponsorship Advocates Facebook group have posted remaining questions, such as whether the increase applies to both inland and outland applicants and whether the government is considering their other demands.
One group member, Nawar Helela, commented: "I hope they deliver as promised."