VANCOUVER—In the span of a few hours Monday, Monte Gisborne went from feeling dejected to elated to furious again: Would his wife and eight-year-old daughter, who have been stranded in Wuhan, China, be allowed to return home or not?
For days, Gisborne of Coquitlam, B.C., had been told that because his spouse, Daniela Luo, and his daughter, Dominica Gisborne, are permanent residents of Canada, they were ineligible for a seat on a plane the government had chartered to evacuate people from Wuhan. The city has been locked down since a deadly outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus.
Then on Monday, Gisborne was forwarded a news alert that made him whoop and holler in his office. It was reported that Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne had announced that, for the sake of “family unity,” permanent residents with children would be allowed to board the flight. But uncertainty still gnawed at him, so he dashed off an email to Global Affairs Canada for peace of mind.
“I’d rather hear it from the government,” he said.
He had reason to be skeptical. The Star was told by Champagne’s office Monday afternoon that at least one member of the family on the ground in Wuhan — either a parent or child — had to be a citizen to board the plane. In other words, if Gisborne was in China with his family, they’d all be able to return.
“It doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense,” said Gisborne, who, as of late Monday afternoon, had not yet heard directly from anybody in the government about the status of his wife and daughter. “They’re my family. It’s mind-blowing how weirdly selective they are about this. Any permanent resident who wants to be repatriated should be allowed to go. Nobody over there is thinking this through and doing what’s right. My family are not second-class citizens.”
Canada will “keep pushing” to convince China to let all citizens and permanent residents leave the country, Champagne’s press secretary, Syrine Khoury, said.
The Star first caught up with Gisborne Sunday evening as he sat hunched over his laptop at the kitchen table during one of his regular video chats with Luo, some 9,000 kilometres away.
At one point, Luo turned her camera toward the window of her parents’ apartment, which overlooked a barren street.
“No people. Empty,” she said gloomily.
Asked when she had last stepped outside, she paused for a moment.
“Oh, good question. I don’t know,” she said, allowing herself a chuckle. Luo said she’d love to take Dominica outside, but it’s just too risky.
“I need to keep our family members safe.”
Gisborne said he’d made repeated attempts over the last couple weeks to appeal to government officials, but kept getting the same rote answers.
“Thank you for contacting the Emergency Watch and Response Centre at Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa,” read a government email he received Jan. 30.
“We have been informed that only Canadian citizens who have entered China with a Canadian passport will be allowed to board the plane. Our policy is to keep families together whenever possible, and we have raised this with the Government of China. However, the Chinese policy is that only Canadian citizens travelling on their Canadian passport will be permitted to leave on this aircraft.”
In a statement to reporters late last week, Global Affairs Canada said it was “providing consular advice and assistance to permanent residents to the extent possible in the local context.”
But Luo said she had received no communication from any Canadian consular officials, even though Gisborne forwarded all her contact information to Ottawa.
Luo said she spoke over the weekend to a couple from Canada who were also in Hubei Province with their three kids. At the time, they faced a difficult choice: the father and the three children are Canadian citizens but the mother is a permanent resident. Do they accept the flight home or stay together as a family?
“I love (Canada) so much. I always tell my friends,” Luo said. “I feel very proud for this country. At this time, I feel very, very disappointed. We do the same work with the Canadian citizens. We pay tax … I just say, ‘Why?’ ”
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Gisborne met Luo and her daughter about six years ago when he was doing business in Wuhan. (At the time, he owned a company that built solar-powered boats and had a supplier in Wuhan). In 2016, they relocated to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and opened a business giving tours aboard a refurbished Chinese junk while teaching Chinese culture. Gisborne sponsored Luo and Dominica’s permanent resident applications.
Recently, the family moved to the West Coast after Gisborne got a job as an electric car salesman. Luo decided to take her daughter back to Wuhan for a few weeks to see family and celebrate Lunar New Year.
When the health scare broke out, they booked an earlier flight home but got stuck when the city was locked down.
“It’s so dangerous. I’m scared of go outside,” she said. “Every people scared go outside.”
Over the past two weeks, she said she’d only ventured outside once — to go buy some fruit and to say hi to some of her former classmates. It being a Chinese holiday, they exchanged gifts: Face masks.
The gravity of the situation hit home recently when Luo’s mother learned that her best friend had died from the virus. “She can’t go to see her — because we can’t go outside.”
Luo said she tried reaching out to local Chinese officials for assistance, but they directed her to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. When Gisborne called them, they said there was nothing they could do.
“They were very clear — they can’t help us. It’s not their problem, it’s not their battle,” he said.
“My family is stranded in Wuhan while others are released back to Canada. You have no idea how that very thought rattles me.
“I thought that … Canada was supposed to keep us all safe.”
Prior to the government’s change of heart Monday regarding some permanent residents, Gisborne said their exclusion made no sense as other countries had accommodated their permanent residents. Media reports Monday indicated that a Qantas 747 jet landed in Australia carrying Australian citizens and permanent residents who had been evacuated from Wuhan.
“Is my government putting pressure on the Chinese government to allow my family to return to Canada?” Gisborne wrote in an email to Global Affairs Canada on the weekend.
While they wait for updates, Luo said she passes the time by reading and writing in her diary. Dominica said she jumps rope indoors and plays with her grandpa.
Gisborne said he can’t help but think the worst when he hears one of them cough.
As he ended his chat session, he stared at the blank computer screen: “It’s everything I love in the world, right there — those two girls.”
With files from Alex Ballingall