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US-Canada border is mostly closed, but Canadians made it to Capitol siege

A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in Washington after a rally where the president spoke, urging them on, Jan. 6, 2021.
A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in Washington after a rally where the president spoke, urging them on, Jan. 6, 2021.JASON ANDREW/NYT

TORONTO - Despite strict limits on nonessential travel between Canada and the United States, two Canadian nurses active in the so-called “anti-lockdown” movement made it to Washington for the Wednesday rally that preceded the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The women, Sarah Choujounian and Kristen Nagle, were part of a group of American and Canadian health-care professionals calling themselves the "Global Frontline Nurses" who gathered in Washington that day, according to a news release, video from the scene and social media posts.

In the hours before President Donald Trump's rally at the Ellipse, they held a small event in downtown Washington where both spoke. A live stream posted to Facebook by another nurse in the group that afternoon shows Choujounian on the steps of the Capitol amid a large crowd.

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Though there is no evidence that either woman participated in the violence, their trip to Washington raises questions about loopholes in the rules governing travel between the United States and Canada during the coronavirus pandemic. It also offers a reminder of the deep ties between conspiratorial and far-right movements on both sides of the border.

Canada and the United States mutually agreed to close their land border to nonessential travel last March, and have extended the restrictions for 30-day increments ever since. The measures enjoy widespread support in Canada, and officials have indicated that they won't be lifted anytime soon.

But they contain a loophole: Canadians can fly to the United States, including for nonessential travel, though they must quarantine for 14 days upon their return. Trudeau has faced pressure to tighten border restrictions, and this month, Canada began requiring all air travelers to provide a negative coronavirus test before entry.

At least one Canadian flag can be seen waving in photos and video of the mobbing of the Capitol building. The nurses posted a video in which they chatted with Sam, a man Nagle identified as a "fellow Canadian," who was present at the Capitol building Wednesday. His identity could not be confirmed.

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The identities of the two Canadian nurses who traveled to Washington were first reported by Justin Ling at Vice News. It is unclear how many Canadians were at the riot.

Jason Kung, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said that the agency is "not aware of the involvement or detention of any Canadian citizens in relation to the recent event on Capitol Hill."

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada's federal law enforcement agency, said it has "no information that Canadians were arrested as part of the events that unfolded last week" in Washington, and referred questions to U.S. law enforcement.

Neither Choujounian nor Nagle responded to requests for comment sent to their social media accounts.

According to the College of Nurses of Ontario, Nagle has worked at the London Health Sciences Center-Children's Hospital of Western Ontario since 2012. In a statement, the hospital said she is on unpaid leave.

"We continue to learn of actions involving an NICU nurse at London Health Sciences Centre that are not aligned with LHSC's values," it said. "Upon originally learning of concerns related to participation in a local anti-masking rally back in November, LHSC took immediate action to ensure the hospital remains a safe environment for everyone by placing her on an unpaid leave pending the results of the investigation."

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Choujounian is listed as having worked at a long-term care home outside Toronto from 2007 to 2020, according to the regulatory body's records. In video of the nurses' event Wednesday, she said that she was fired because of her social media posts about coronavirus restrictions, such as lockdowns. Her LinkedIn profile lists her job as "Life Coach."

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there's been a surge of interest in conspiratorial content, much of it originating in the United States and adapting to local contexts as it spreads.

What's emerged is a sprawling movement that mixes vaccine hesitancy, coronavirus denial and far-right conspiracies, most notably QAnon. It has spurred "anti-lockdown" and "freedom" rallies around the world.

In Canada, the movement has led to rallies in cities across the country, including regular "anti-lockdown" events in downtown Toronto.

The Toronto event brings together a mix of anti-vaccine activists, small-business owners who oppose coronavirus restrictions and hardcore conspiracists who believe, despite zero evidence, that Trump is secretly waging war on an international cabal.

At an Oct. 24 rally in Toronto, a crowd of several hundred cheered speakers downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and encouraged participants to ditch masks. Some participants carried Trump 2020 flags, others banners referencing American conspiracies such as "Pizzagate."

The next week, Choujounian was a featured speaker, according to a video she posted on Instagram, opening her remarks with "Hello, freedom fighters!" and going on to compare coronavirus restrictions to "crimes against humanity."

In November, Nagle helped organize a "freedom rally" in London, Ontario, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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Her social media posts suggest links to the anti-vaccination movement and coronavirus denial. In a recent online panel posted to the Facebook page of a Canadian anti-vaccine group, she discussed her plans to travel to Washington on Tuesday and return Thursday.

In a video posted Thursday as she prepared to head back to Canada, Nagle accused the media of being "manipulative" and interviewed a man who described the previous day's events, in which five people were killed, as "peaceful."

“I hope that helps to get a different perspective on what’s happening here,” Nagle said. “To show you, like, the sun’s out. We’re having a good time. We’re going to start our travel home.”