Terminally ill Whistler woman reunited with sister from Philippines following travel restriction changes
VANCOUVER -- Wearing a mask and face shield, April Untalan walked out of international arrivals at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday, excited to finally reunite with her sister Charie Santiago in Whistler.
“I’m so happy,” she said.
Her 38 year-old sister Charie has Stage 4 cancer and, in June, was given only months to live. But April’s first application to come and visit was denied, because as a sibling she did not meet the federal government’s definition of immediate family and would not be exempt from pandemic travel restrictions.
Charie’s mother was given approval to travel, and arrived in Canada last month to be by her daughter’s side.
Charie’s husband Arthur made a public plea to Ottawa to allow his wife to see her sister. He first shared their story with CTV News Vancouver on Sept. 8.
“I don’t want to say it’s a dying wish, but it is basically,” he said at the time, and described the two sisters as best friends. “Out of everything, that’s all I want for her.”
On Oct. 2, the federal government announced changes were coming to Canada’s travel restrictions, which made allowances for extended family members including siblings, and also for foreign nationals to travel on compassionate grounds. The changes did not take effect until Oct. 8.
April was given the green light to come to Canada two days later. She arrived in Vancouver on the first available direct flight from Manila on Thursday, and then travelled to Whistler for the long-awaited reunion.
The two sisters embraced as Charie lay in her hospital bed at home. Arthur said April has special permission to quarantine in their place.
Charie also spoke, with her sister standing close to her bedside, one hand resting on her shoulder.
“I’m very happy. My wish is here,” Charie said, and added she wanted to thank everybody who has helped them. “We’re best friends.”
Charie said she is also grateful to Citizenship and Immigration Canada “for understanding the gift of having family around when you need it.”
“I’m feeling OK. I feel good right now. My sister is here,” Charie said. “A lot of chit chat’s going to happen.”
Arthur said he wants the sisters to have quality time together, and for April to be able to say goodbye properly.
“I know that she’s been hurting a lot because she can’t take care of her,” he said. “So this is her opportunity just to be around.”
He described their reunion as “overwhelming.”
“Watching the two just kind of see each other, and reassure each other that they’re together, finally,” he said, his voice breaking.
Whistler immigration consultant Laurie Cooper, who worked with the Santiago family on this case, said the exemption for Charie’s sister was the second of its kind to be granted in Canada.
“Obviously, we’re just delighted,” she told CTV News. “It’s a tragic situation. Charie doesn’t have much time left, but at least she gets to see her sister and her sister gets to be with her.”
Cooper said they’re grateful the government responded to the groundswell of voices calling for changes to allow families opportunities to reunite.
“Admittedly, it would have been better if it could have come a little faster, but I think everyone’s just grateful that now we have something in place that can reunite these families that have been suffering so much,” she said. “The whole process has been really, really painful for Arthur, but he also recognizes that by being so open about what they’ve been going through, they’ve helped to make it easier for other families to be reunited. And so even if they hadn’t been able to bring April, Charie’s sister, he says it was worth it to help others.”
Arthur does have a message for other families going through similar struggles to reunite with loved ones.
“Have hope, hang on, pray, and it can come true,” he said.