A massive Canadian military transport aircraft, loaded with members of the country's disaster response unit and humanitarian supplies, has landed in the disaster-struck capital of Haiti.

While the airport in the devastated capital city of Port-au-Prince was clogged with air traffic -- barring many aid workers from landing -- the first members of the Canadian Forces squad arrived aboard a C-17 plane Thursday.

They include search-and-rescue technicians who will rush in with equipment and excavation tools to try to pluck out survivors who might still be caught under the rubble. The Canadian Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) was also onboard the transport plane.

"They hit the ground running," Defence Minister Peter MacKay told a press briefing Thursday.

Canadian relief personnel were met by 20 members of an advance reconnaissance squad who had arrived Wednesday aboard a C-130 Hercules to assess the immediate needs and determine a strategy for providing aid.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said search and rescue is the first priority for Canadian teams.

"Obviously, the first priority is to try and get those people who may be still alive and can be saved," he said. "As the days progress, we'll be working on humanitarian and other responses."

In the coming days, a medical platoon and a mobile medical facility will also arrive to help overwhelmed local Haitian hospitals, which have been inundated with injured survivors.

But there are major hurdles to providing aid to the country's neediest.

Even before the quake, the impoverished nation's infrastructure was lacking. Exacerbating the problems, the quake destroyed the UN's headquarters in Port-au-Prince, meaning more difficulties in co-ordinating the extraordinary relief plan.

Still, DART electricians will then work to help re-establish power and phone service destroyed by Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude quake, while engineers will help to get roadways and bridges operational again.

Two navy ships loaded with more helicopters and humanitarian supplies have also been dispatched to the area. HMCS Halifax is being sent with a Sea King helicopter, while Destroyer HMCS Athabaskan is scheduled will be laden with additional emergency supplies.

Financial aid

Canada's minister of international co-operation, Beverley Oda, announced Thursday that Canada will match dollar-for-dollar any donations they make to registered Canadian charities to support humanitarian and recovery work in Haiti, up to a total of $50 million.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) will distribute any funds donated between Jan. 12 and Feb 12 to Canadian and international humanitarian and development organizations.

Already, the donations for the estimated three million Haitian survivors have been pouring in. The Canadian Red Cross, just one group doing work in Haiti, said Wednesday evening it had already received more than $1 million in donations.

World Vision says the number of donations coming in are 10 times the usual.

A spokesman for the Humanitarian Coalition, which includes Care Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec and Save the Children, says the donations are "quite literally overwhelming." They have been so brisk, he says, their Internet servers are periodically crashing.

Aid agencies are trying to get the word out to Canadians that while their offers of clothing and food are appreciated, it would be more helpful to donate money. They're asking Canadians not to drop off supplies at their offices, but instead to write a cheque.

Ottawa has already pledged to send $4.8 million in immediate aid to Haiti. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the money represents an initial contribution by Canada for urgent humanitarian assistance.

"This will help provide emergency shelter, medical service, food, relief items, water and sanitation services, as well as offer protection," Cannon told reporters Wednesday.

Dave Toycen, president and CEO of World Vision Canada, said the organization has 300 workers already in Haiti, along with relief supplies for 1,500 families that were prepared in anticipation of hurricane season. However, the group is still struggling to get a clear picture of the devastation.

Haiti is the second-largest recipient of Canadian development aid.

More than 100,000 people of Haitian descent live in Canada and the two nations have a long-standing relationship.

  • Canadians concerned about relatives in the country can call the emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 1-800-387-3124, (613) 943-1055, or by email: sos@international.gc.ca
  • Canadians in Haiti can contact embassy officials in Port-au-Prince by calling the Department of Foreign Affairs' Emergency Operations Centre collect at (613) 996-8885.