Final Year German and Politics student Jacob Taylor hasn’t exactly had the most straight forward year. Lobbying the Canadian government, his fiancée being diagnosed with cancer, and livestreaming their wedding via YouTube wasn’t quite how he envisaged the year would turn out.
At the end of January Jacob flew from Vienna, where he was on his Year Abroad, to Canada to see his girlfriend Sarah. After navigating border control, security checks and baggage reclaim, he got down on one knee and proposed in Arrivals, Love Actually style. Although, “it wasn’t exactly like in the movies,” he says. One young girl turned to her father and asked, “What’s that strange man doing?”. Nonetheless, Sarah said yes, just like in the movies.
After ten days in Canada, he flew back to Vienna to return to work. And then lockdown hit, all over the world. Jacob was forced to return home to the UK in March, the same month that Canada locked its borders with the tightest possible chain. It wasn’t until June that even married couples were able to reunite, and Jacob and his fiancée Sarah unfortunately didn’t qualify as they were yet to be legal partners. The borders were closed and no amount of pressure would force the Canadian government to budge. Their planned wedding date of 27th June came and went, with the Atlantic Ocean still separating them. Instead, Jacob explains, they had a Zoom date to mark the occasion, complete with tuxedo and a Tesco Finest ready meal. Not quite the wedding date they had imagined.
Just five days later, what was an already unbearable situation became even worse. Sarah was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, having found a lump found on her neck. Jacob describes this time as incredibly stressful and frustrating, as although Sarah was living with her parents who could support her through treatment, he felt there was little he could do from 3,500 miles away. Fortunately, Sarah’s surgery was successful, but this further complication prevented her from joining Jacob in the UK over the summer and moving into their flat together in Bath as planned. Their June wedding in Canada, followed by a similar ceremony closer to home in Durham, a two-week honeymoon in Edinburgh and finally moving in together in Bath were all scuppered by the unforeseen combination of Canada’s closed borders and Sarah’s cancer diagnosis.
Instead, July saw Jacob move into their flat alone while in August, Sarah underwent surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes from her thyroid. Finding the light where he can, Jacob explains “her scars are actually very bad-ass. She had two large drainage tubes put into her throat so the scars left behind make a massive smiley face on her neck; a long curved scar and two holes either side. It looks like she’s survived her throat being slit or something.”
In total we were separated for 245 days, 100 of which Sarah was facing the cancer diagnosis and treatment
Jacob recalls, “If it hadn’t been for the cancer, Sarah would have already been in the UK by this point, and none of this would even have been a story. But of course Covid stopped me from going over, and then cancer stopped her from travelling over. In total we were separated for 245 days, 100 of which Sarah was facing the cancer diagnosis and treatment. Finally we were married on Sunday 25 October, four months later than planned.”
Their happy ending did not come without a long and arduous fight. As it was the Canadian government whose rules were preventing the couple from reuniting, Sarah wrote a total of 132 handwritten letters to government ministers, as well as extensive online lobbying, raising awareness of the plight facing thousands of couples, family members, parents and children, separated during the pandemic. Jacob explains, “Sarah was the one with the voice, the attention, and it was her officials who would change things. At times that did make me feel quite helpless, because without being a Canadian citizen I couldn’t really change anything. Instead I found my role doing absolutely everything I could to support Sarah’s lobbying. No matter who you are, if your other half is in pain and needs help, you want to help them anyway you can.” From across the ocean, Jacob contacted various Embassies, the Canadian Border Security Agency and British MPs, among others, to see if anyone could help, and in his own words, “tweeted very angrily”.
Jacob also emphasises, “it was absolutely a collective effort – Sarah started off by emailing loads of media outlets and the story got picked up by a big paper in Toronto, which spring-boarded a whole lot more media attention. Over the summer we were interviewed by BBC Points West, BBC Somerset, Times Radio, and lots of news channels in Canada too. If the media had never picked up the story , they definitely would not have got as far as they did, says Jacob. “All that media interest really amplified our story and helped to apply pressure on government, who eventually caught on.”
Jacob also highlights the online community found in a Facebook group of people all facing the same situation and advocating for change. He says, laughing, “It sounds like such a boomer-Mum thing to be connected in a Facebook group, but it really made all the difference. Eventually our group of 8000 or so became recognised as the official advocating group in Canada, with our lobbying much more powerful than the sum of its parts.”
“It’s important to emphasise though that our group was never advocating for open borders. There are thousands of couples still separated who haven’t been processed and are waiting for a response. The coronavirus situation is still so dynamic so although things might look optimistic for a moment, they can change so quickly.”
After 245 days apart, Jacob finally landed in Toronto on 11 October, where he quarantined for fourteen days before the pair were finally married. “Due to the pandemic, we had to keep numbers relatively limited. None of our family or friends from the UK were allowed across the border with me, so we livestreamed the ceremony. In fact, so many people were watching that at one point it started trending on YouTube and being recommended to strangers. Sarah tweeted the link too so it was really nice that people who have supported our advocacy online were able to tune in.”
“We also received so much support from the local community here in Stratford, Ontario. A wedding planner offered their services to us for free, and got lots of other vendors involved too, which we hadn’t expected at all. We also keep getting recognised in town. I went to get a haircut before the wedding, and the only payment the barber would accept was a tip, no charge for the haircut. Likewise we went out for food and people insisted on giving us free brownies and hot chocolates because they’d heard our story. Stratford is a fairly small and close-knit town, so news gets around quickly. As soon as people see Sarah’s scar and hear my British accent, they usually put two and two together if they’ve heard the story on local news. That’s still very strange.”
Post-wedding, the couple’s hurdles still weren’t over. Sarah underwent radiation therapy in November, which thankfully all went to plan. “We’ve got our plane tickets booked back to the UK for 7 December, and our plan is to stay put in Bath. It will be nice after Christmas not to have to get up at 4:45 in the morning anymore for my seminars. I’ve been rolling out of bed, drinking coffee, and speaking German at 5am, so I’m glad that period of my uni experience will be over.”
Although it was the pandemic itself which initially kept the couple apart for so long, Jacob is thankful for the benefits of having been able to continue his studies from Canada and while Sarah was undergoing treatment. “In many ways it was good to have uni work to keep me busy. I took two days off just after we got married but other than that I’ve kept on top of everything. Things have worked out well from that point of view.”
I ask Jacob whether he’d ever go through the lobbying process again, after all he has learnt this year. “If there was something close to my heart, I could probably do it, but it is extremely tiring. It really needs to be something that is almost life and death to you, because it’s hard to keep motivated after being knocked down so many times. We had so much disappointment and false hope and every time the only thing getting me through was the thought of being with Sarah eventually. But I would go through the whole process for Sarah again, if I needed to. Luckily we’re married now so no government can really keep us apart again.”