Atlantic bubble raises constitutional concern, but most residents happy with its benefits

It’s in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 6(2): “Everyone has the right to live in and take up residence in any province.”

The Atlantic bubble throws a bit of a wrench into that freedom.

Beginning July 3, the Atlantic provinces “bubbled” together, following months of regional restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The change in policy meant open borders between Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, and putting strict conditions crossing the eastern border of Quebec. Namely, a mandatory 14-day self isolation period for anyone entering, or re-entering, the Atlantic region.

The questions experts are left pondering are whether that violates the Charter, and whether the extenuating circumstance of a pandemic is cause for exception.

Motorists from the mainland go through checkpoints after they came off Confederation Bridge in Borden-Carleton, P.E.I., on July 3 when the Island opened to visitors from other Maritime provinces. (Brian McInnis/The Canadian Press)

Support for the bubble

COVID-19 is something many Atlantic Canadians, albeit not constitutional experts, think should be grounds for granting an exception.

“I don’t think the Constitution took into perspective that there might be a global pandemic,” says Nicolas Pike of Edmundston, N.B.

Like many Atlantic Canadians, Pike and his partner Danyka Boulay took time this summer to explore the region, in place of heading to Quebec or Ontario.

Boulay says she supports the provinces’ approach.

“They’re just trying to keep us safe, they’re doing a great job,” she says.

Boulay’s confidence reflects a common East Coast opinion, ever since leaders eliminated earlier provincial isolation measures in the region, shifting to a collective approach to protecting themselves from provinces to the west.

People stroll on a the Halifax waterfront on Sept. 14. The Atlantic bubble’s success at containing COVID-19 in the Maritimes means people don’t have to wear masks in public. (Robert Short/CBC)

A recent poll indicates nearly 80 per cent of Atlantic Canadians support the bubble, although there has been constant worry and speculation since its creation that it might burst.

Halifax business owner Don Mills adds that keeping the bubble comes at an increasing cost, especially to local companies already suffering.

“Our economy is being, you know, really hard hit,” Mills says. “And the hard news about the economy is yet to come, because with the federal support of businesses and individuals, when that stops, we’re going to see severe consequences. we’re going to see lots of bankruptcies.”

Mills says the bubble can’t be kept in place indefinitely, with the economy suffering:

Don Mills, a Halifax business owner and former pollster, talks about the need to burst the Atlantic bubble. 4:09

Even so, the mood among people in Halifax is generally upbeat.

“I feel like it’s good,” says Moe Ajha. “I think it’s the best option for us, to stay closed down for now.”

“I feel very safe in the Atlantic bubble,” adds Kerry Sullivan. “It makes me feel very fortunate that we live where we do.”

“I’m not terribly interested in opening up to the rest of the country,” says Karen Havert.

The fact is, it is safer in these provinces. As of Sept. 15, Ontario has recorded over 45,068 cases, with the Atlantic provinces only recording 1,608. Even with the populations accounted for, the numbers are telling.

As of Sept. 15, the Atlantic provinces combined have recorded only 1,608 cases of COVID-19, compared to Ontario’s 45,068 cases. (Robert Short/CBC)

Other provincial comparisons illustrate the same picture. British Columbia has about double the population of the Atlantic provinces, but more than four times the number confirmed cases. Quebec has recorded nearly 40 times the cases over the course of the pandemic, with only 3.6 times the population of the East Coast.

And perhaps driving home the success, Atlantic Canada is currently coping better than even New Zealand, which has been celebrated internationally for its ability to overcome COVID-19. The island nation, with double the population of Atlantic Canada, has 83 active cases. Atlantic Canada has seven, all of which are considered travel-related.

Worth the wait

Whether fuelled by the facts or by feeling, many people have decided the 14-day quarantine is worth doing, because of the freedom waiting at the end of it.

That includes hundreds of university students from other provinces, putting in time in modest apartments — even residence rooms — in the Atlantic region, to prove their will to be in the bubble.

“This is one of the safest areas in North America right now,” says Saint Mary’s University student Bryn de Chastelain, who had to isolate after a summer in Ontario. For him, it was a clear choice to do the time.

“I’m happy to be able to study and live in a place that is relatively COVID-free.”

Bryn de Chastelain is the president of Saint Mary’s University’s Student Association. De Chastelain spoke to CBC’s Tom Murphy from the window of his second-floor South End Halifax apartment on day 12 of his 14-day self isolation, a requirement for everyone upon entering the province from outside the Atlantic bubble. (Jill English/CBC)

The law says yes, for now

But back to the idea of whether it’s constitutional.

University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes has been writing about this. He says Section 6(2) of the Constitution can’t be interpreted without the application of Section 1.

“[Section 1] gives governments the ability to limit rights if they are reasonable limits, demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” he says

University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes says he believes the Atlantic bubble is constitutional, given the extenuating circumstances required to safeguard health during the pandemic. (CBC)

“It is my firm conviction that as long as the governments in the bubble can present cogent public health information and cogent scientific basis, and present the possibility of community spread from travellers from other parts of Canada, they can basically still keep the bubble being within the constitutional framework,” Mendes adds.

So those 80 per cent of Atlantic Canadians who support the pandemic safety measures can breathe a sigh of relief. For now at least, the only thing that might break the bubble will be decisions made from inside it.