Michelle Rempel Garner: Quarantine hotels put women at risk

The Liberals could have opted for some common sense safeguards. They didn't.

Women and members of the LGBTQ community are at greater risk than straight men for sexual violence.

How this well-known fact was not considered when the federal government decided to isolate people in federal quarantine hotels is baffling.

So far, there have been reports of two women suffering from sexual assault related to federal quarantine policies. One of them was allegedly assaulted while staying at a quarantine hotel in Montreal. In reading the details of these cases, it’s clear that whomever signed off on the management plan didn’t have a hot clue about the risks faced by vulnerable people who travel alone.

Upon arrival at the hotel, one victim was told by government officials that she wasn’t allowed to disclose her location to her family. (Rule number one for a woman travelling alone is to always inform people you trust about your whereabouts in case something happens.)

She was then given a pamphlet which advised her against locking her door so that security could access the room. The security lock on her door had been removed entirely, according to a report in La Presse. I know zero women — including myself — who would ever leave their doors unlocked.

Really picture this: A woman lands in Canada, her passport is seized, she is unexpectedly taken to a federally run facility, told to keep her whereabouts secret, her door unlocked, and to stay in her room. She was a vulnerable person, alone, with no way to know the people around her — hotel staff, security, etc. — could be trusted.

At this point, I would have been terrified. It turns out she had every reason to be.

After the alleged assault occurred, she called security. No one arrived for 15 minutes. When assistance finally came, she was told she could go to the hospital — on the condition that she return to the scene of her assault immediately afterward.

This woman had a right to let her loved ones know where she was. She had the right to lock her door. The federal government owed her a duty of care, and it failed. Whichever Liberal cabinet minister signed off the management plan for this program clearly had not thought through any of these issues, nor put in place safeguards to prevent them from happening.

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After this incident, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked if the government would suspend the quarantine hotel program until safeguards could be put in place to prevent future assaults. She responded with: “no one should be travelling outside the country for non-essential reasons right now.”

I then asked the Health Minister whether Freeland was, effectively, victim blaming. In response, Health Minister Patty Hadju said: “every woman deserves to live a life free of violence and a life of dignity, but I will repeat that these border measures are in place to protect Canadians and will remain in place until such time that science and evidence indicates that it is safe to release them.”

There should never be a qualifier attached to a statement as banal as: “every woman deserves to live a life free of violence and a life of dignity.” Hadju should be ashamed of herself. As of writing this, nearly a week after reports of the indecent surfaced, the Liberals have not announced any changes to the hotel quarantine program. No woman would feel safe entering these facilities under these circumstances.

Keeping women safe and stopping the spread of COVID-19 are not mutually incompatible goals. Pre and post-arrival testing procedures like the Alberta Border Pilot Program have proven safe and effective for augmenting quarantines within homes. I have pressed the Liberals for data that showed that the hotel quarantine program was more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 than other methods that might be safer for women. They have not provided any.

This isn’t a government that can claim a solid track record for consistent and effective COVID-19 policies. Remember, only a year ago, Hadju herself insisted that border measures wouldn’t work to stop the spread of COVID-19. Her government took far too long to implement even the most basic border restrictions then; it is prioritizing pandemic theatre that puts women at risk now.

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What makes the Liberal response to this even more galling is their assumption that women are travelling right now solely for leisure purposes. Even if this were true, the conditions at the hotel would not be justified. If the Liberals want to implement tighter border restrictions, they have the power to do so. But they can’t leave the border half open, and then imply a victim was at fault for her own assault because she decided to do what she was legally entitled to do. Further, in this case, the woman was reportedly travelling after living for a time with her partner in the U.S.

Lastly, federal quarantine hotels demonstrate that the Liberals really aren’t committed to gender-based analysis in public policy. What happened probably would not have if the Liberals had taken the time to consider the impacts of this policy on women. Common sense safeguards could have been put in place. They weren’t.

This program needs to be scrapped in favour of a combination of pre- and post-arrival testing to bolster safe, at-home quarantine.

If achieving fairness for women in policy is important to the federal government, then this should be happening across the board for any policy related to the pandemic. Getting this right is something that should be keeping any self-proclaimed feminist up at night, because there are women in federal quarantine hotels right now who aren’t getting much sleep.

Michelle Rempel Garner is a Conservative MP who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill.


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