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A man in a face mask waves a Canadian flag on a bus to repatriation flights bound for Canada organized by the Canadian embassy for citizens stranded in Peru, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Lima, Peru April 4, 2020.STRINGER/Reuters

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has taken some unconventional means to bring home thousands of Canadians stranded abroad by the COVID-19 pandemic, from securing landing rights for planes over text message to directly negotiating flight fares with airline CEOs.

As of Tuesday, the federal government had co-ordinated the repatriation of more than 16,000 Canadians on 119 flights from 65 countries. Despite the government’s best efforts, things haven’t always gone smoothly for those trying to get back to Canada. Mr. Champagne has warned the government won’t be able to bring everyone home because of border and airspace closings, but says he is digging into his diplomatic toolbox to repatriate as many Canadians as possible.

“A lot of these things depend on diplomacy because nothing is working on a normal commercial basis,” Mr. Champagne said in a phone interview. “I’ve become the travel agent of Canada.”

For instance, when Peru closed its airspace hours after it agreed to allow foreign repatriation planes last month, Mr. Champagne texted Peruvian Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio to ensure the Canadian flights would still be able to land.

Mr. Champagne also turned to text message to help co-ordinate repatriation flights from Morocco.

Canada’s ambassador to Morocco, Nell Stewart, said Mr. Champagne’s relationship with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, whom he met during a trip to Rabat in January, made an “enormous difference” as embassy staff worked to repatriate 2,000 Canadians over the span of a week. “I can’t imagine how we would have managed it without tapping into our whole network," Ms. Stewart said.

Brent Robson, director of Global Affairs Canada’s emergency watch and response centre in Ottawa, said Mr. Champagne has “championed” innovative approaches during what the minister has described as the biggest consular operation in the history of Canadian peace time. For instance, officials have turned to messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, to communicate.

Mr. Champagne said he personally intervened with his U.S. and British counterparts to ensure the Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships could pass through the Panama Canal so they could go on to dock in Florida. He also texted the chief executive of Holland America to ensure Canadians could disembark to board flights home.

At the beginning of the pandemic, between 5,000 and 6,000 Canadians were stranded on 165 cruise ships around the world. As of Tuesday, that number had dropped significantly, to fewer than 50 Canadian passengers on five cruise ships and about 300 Canadian crew members on 82 ships – an effort Mr. Champagne characterizes as a “success story.”

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It’s unclear how many Canadians remain stranded abroad. Global Affairs said it isn’t able to say exactly how many Canadians who wish to return home are unable to do so, given the complicated nature of consular requests.

The Conservatives have called on the government to prioritize vulnerable Canadians for seats on repatriation flights and deploy military aircraft to bring people home where chartered commercial flights are not available.

“While we understand that this is an extraordinary situation, it is clear from the countless messages that Conservatives have received from Canadians that the current system must urgently change,” deputy Conservative leader Leona Alleslev said in a statement.

One of the major issues for stranded Canadians has been the price of return tickets – something the government has tried to ease by offering emergency loans of up to $5,000.

Adam McEniry, a freelance videographer from Burlington, Ont., received a government loan but was disappointed by the price of his return ticket from Rwanda. With no commercial flights available, Mr. McEniry paid nearly $4,700 for a one-way ticket on a Canadian repatriation flight – triple the normal fare.

“To have to pay nearly $5,000, the stress is up and I’m kind of desperate to get out of here. It’s traumatic,” Mr. McEniry said before his flight last week.

In the early days of the global outbreak, Ottawa footed the bill to repatriate Canadians from Wuhan, China – where the virus first appeared – and Japan, where citizens were stranded on a cruise ship that had an outbreak.

As the virus spread and the government urged Canadians to come home as soon as possible, Ottawa turned to major airlines to operate repatriation flights from places where commercial options were not available. However, that meant the cost of the ticket became the responsibility of passengers.

Mr. Champagne said he is working with airlines to reduce the price of tickets, but pointed out that market conditions, including the fact that most planes are travelling empty in one direction, affect costs.

Global Affairs said it has arrangements with airlines to offset some costs of repatriation flights, including “underwriting” for risks, but did not say how much it has spent.

The government had approved more than 1,300 emergency travel loans and was processing another 2,100 applications, as of Tuesday. Canadian citizens are eligible for the loan and can include expenses for an immediate family member who is a permanent resident. Permanent residents not accompanied by a citizen are considered eligible for a loan if they face a “threat to life or other grievous harm," according to the government’s website.

Emaan Arslan, a permanent resident who is visiting her husband in Pakistan, said she was told she is not eligible for a loan because she is not a Canadian citizen. Ms. Arslan, who is a child support worker in Saskatoon, said she is concerned her April 22 flight home will be cancelled and she won’t have enough money to book another ticket before her permanent resident travel document expires on May 5.

“It’s really frustrating and really stressful because I’m paying my taxes, I’m obeying all the laws and rules and regulations that normal citizens are following,” Ms. Arslan said.

Loans can be declined for a variety of reasons, Mr. Champagne said, adding he hasn’t heard complaints about permanent resident applications.

Mr. Champagne said Global Affairs has “turned a corner” in its COVID-19 response, with 75 per cent of the consular operation complete, and will eventually sit down to reflect on lessons learned from the unprecedented challenges during the pandemic.

“No one could have ever anticipated the scope, the complexity and the volumes.”

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