Ottawa pastor has medical exemption rejected by U.S. border agents
Mike Croteau is an Ottawa pastor that has dedicated half his sanctuary to kickboxing.
While he describes it as a place where one can find love and peace through prayer and the practice of mixed martial arts, lately Croteau himself has been extremely frustrated with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
He has an autoimmune disorder that gives him an exemption from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Last May he tried to cross the border with his family and had his letter rejected and desire to cross denied.
“There were lots of tears shed,” said Croteau.
He says the trip is important to his family because they are trying to attend a memorial for his wife’s grandparents. They died in an American nursing home at the height of the pandemic and lockdowns. She never had the chance to say a proper goodbye.
"It’s hard not to get emotional, but when she was watching the funeral of her grandparents she was watching on her cellphone," said Croteau. "And that was the hardest thing for me to watch because she’s crying and she can’t hear what’s being said."
He tells CTV News that once the situation improved and travel was normalized again, the family planned a memorial so they could all be together and hold a traditional service. But when he got to the border with a vaccine exemption, PCR test, and the proof of death and memorial in hand; he said the border agents wouldn’t let him through.
"The car was loaded down," said his wife Trish Croteau. “We had someone watch our cats and take care of our house; to get there and not be allowed to cross – that was hard.”
They pushed back but were ultimately turned away. Trish didn’t want to leave him behind and her siblings didn’t want to go ahead with the memorial without them. She says they cancelled their hotel booking and her siblings did the same with theirs.
Croteau says their next move was to send emails to U.S. Customs and to contact an American immigration lawyer.
Through email correspondence, a supervisor wrote suggesting his written exemption was too vague.
Part of it reads:
“Most of the medical letters for exemptions that we have received have more detail and include an underlying condition, like cancer, MS etc. Lacking more detail, I can proceed with a waiver from our Director of Field Operations because the reason for the visit is significant, Celebration of Life. Either way, you have plenty of time to take care of either of these processes before late August, early September. Please let me know which way you want to go.”
When asked if more disclosure would be a solution, Croteau indicated part of this is also about the oath doctors take and his right to medical privacy.
"I’m very public as a pastor with my illness. I’m very public on my social media with my illness," said Croteau. "My struggle with that (disclosure) is that with them (doctors) declaring my illness then I can be discriminated against."
Ontario’s former privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian agrees that it is not up to border agents to decide what a doctor is authorized to exempt.
In a statement to CTV News, Cavoukian wrote, "I find it completely unacceptable that the border crossing person won’t accept a doctor’s medical exemption regarding the need for a vaccination."
She added, "There is no need to provide a patient’s medical condition, personal health information or any other details. It’s the medical judgment that is required – full stop!"
However; protocol in the United States doesn’t agree.
CTV News reached out to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. It provided the following statement:
"Persons with medical contraindications to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine may provide a medical exemption, but CBP officers may, in their discretion, require any person invoking an exception to provide proof of eligibility consistent with documentation requirements in the CDC’s Technical Instructions."
Furthermore, a deep dive on The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website has a bullet point that clearly states medical contraindication to COVID-19 vaccine exemption letters must contain several essential elements. According to the CDC, "the medical condition must be listed."
Croteau said his fight isn’t over; and hopes to reapply for a compassionate waiver within the next few weeks. The family is planning to try to get together for a memorial honouring his wife’s grandparents again before summer ends.