Freeland: Military jets were ready to help Irma evacuees if needed
Published Monday, September 11, 2017 6:59AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 11, 2017 9:38PM EDT
Canadian officials are responding to criticism that Ottawa was slow to help transport Canadians affected by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, where hundreds remained on Monday after U.S., British and Dutch citizens were airlifted out on military jets.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland told CTV’s Power Play that commercial flights brought about 390 Canadians home over the weekend and that Air Canada and WestJet flights would bring “the lion's share” of the remaining Canadians home Monday.
Responding to criticism about the decision not to send military jets, Freeland said that the government had kept military planes “on six-hour notice to go down and evacuate Canadians had that been necessary,” but that “commercial options have been the most effective at bringing people home.”
The minister added that a military C-17 jet is expected to arrive in the region on Tuesday with humanitarian aid and that it will be able to bring home more Canadians, if necessary.
Freeland said she had spoken to people affected by the hurricane and was “so sorry about the ordeal” that they had experienced.
“I’m very glad that today, hopefully, we’ll be able to bring our family and friends home to Canada,” she added.
Earlier in the day, Freeland said at a technical briefing that the government had increased staffing at its emergency response centre in Ottawa to field all the calls from stranded Canadians and worried relatives.
She left that technical briefing early to attend an event at the Women in the World Summit, after which other ministers responded to a flurry of questions from journalists.
Canadians stuck since Friday
Lacey Cranston, whose parents were expecting to leave St. Maarten on the WestJet flight Monday, told CTV News Channel that she questioned whether the Canadian government was prepared.
Cranston said that her parents were driven to the airport on Friday night with about 150 other tourists – including American, British and French nationals – and they ended up being the only people from that resort who were unable to leave the country that night.
On Saturday, it was deemed unsafe for her parents to stay at the resort and they were driven back to the airport where they remained on Monday afternoon, she said.
“Sunday morning, my dad -- who is never scared of anything -- called and said, ‘Get me the hell out of here’,” Cranston said. “They were scared … The lack of communication was frustrating.”
Cranston added that Global Affairs staff were unable to tell her very much over the weekend.
“From my perspective, our government didn’t have a plan in place to get people out,” she said. “We have our NATO allies there in the U.S. getting people out and their evacuation plan was swift."
Turks and Caicos jet delayed
At Monday’s technical briefing, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau addressed concerns from Canadians who questioned why an Air Canada jet had not left Turks and Caicos sooner.
Garneau said that local officials were to blame. “As I understand it from my Transport Canada officials, the concern was that the infrastructure … had been damaged at the airport,” he said.
“They were not going to allow it to take off until the government of Canada had discussions with them,” Garneau added. He could not say exactly what the local officials had wanted to discuss.
Freeland later told CTV Power Play that she had spoken to Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, and expressed “very strongly my view that that Air Canada plane needed to get off the ground.”
She said the governor of the British overseas territory then went to the airport to “impress upon the CEO of the airport the importance of getting the Canadians home.”
Asked about the frustration some Canadians felt with government communications, Garneau responded: “You imagine what St. Maarten looks like right now. It’s 95 per cent devastated, so you can be sure there has been a very big hit to communications infrastructure on the island and people are in some cases stranded in certain locations and isolated from the normal channels of communication.”
“But we’re trying to communicate,” he added.
Global Affairs says that those stranded in the storm-affected region and have not yet contacted Ottawa should call 1-613-996-8885, email firstname.lastname@example.org or, if safe to do so, travel to the airports in Turks and Caicos and St. Maarten.
There have been no reports of serious Canadian injuries or fatalities in Irma’s path, where dozens have been killed.