Canada will dispatch a large military transport aircraft early Thursday morning to ferry members of the country's disaster response unit and humanitarian supplies to the disaster-struck Haitian capital.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Department of Defence said a Boeing C-17 plane was to be loaded with supplies at CFB Trenton, east of Toronto, and would depart Thursday morning. The release added that "components" of Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) would be on board the flight to Port-au-Prince.

Authorities there fear that tens of thousands of people have perished in an earthquake that struck the city of two million Tuesday afternoon.

HMCS Halifax will also be sent to Haiti equipped with a Sea King helicopter, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said. The ship was recalled to port on Wednesday to be loaded with humanitarian supplies.

"We're going to do our best to save lives and protect the vulnerable in the coming days," Cmdr. Art McDonald, captain of HMCS Halifax, told reporters at a press conference in front of the vessel Wednesday afternoon.

MacKay added that a CC-130 Hercules with 20 Canadian Forces personnel on board left for Haiti Wednesday morning. They will provide Canadian officials with "an immediate, eyes-on assessment of the needs," he told reporters.

Destroyer HMCS Athabaskan is also scheduled to depart for Haiti in the coming days, laden with additional emergency supplies.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he spoke to U.S. President Barack Obama by phone Wednesday. The two leaders agreed to work together to assist the impoverished island nation, Harper said.

"I can assure you we're acting as quickly and as comprehensively as possible," Harper told reporters. "The first priority is search and rescue."

The federal government has pledged to send $4.8 million in immediate aid to Haiti, in addition to the full weight of its disaster assistance capabilities.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said that 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 after cabinet ministers met with Harper in Ottawa.

Governor General Michaelle Jean, who was born in Haiti, held an emotional news conference Wednesday afternoon, during which she thanked Ottawa for responding quickly to the humanitarian crisis in her native country.

"We know that every minute, every hour, can make a difference and draw a line between life and death," she said.

Canadians in Haiti

Cannon said the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince has been evacuated since Tuesday night as a precautionary measure. But he said 80 Canadian citizens are taking refuge on the embassy grounds where tents, food, water and medical assistance are being provided.

After the cabinet meeting, Cannon reported that another Canadian in Haiti asked for help via text message, and officials were working to assist that person.

The Canadian Press reported on Wednesday that five Canadian members of the UN peacekeeping team in the Haiti were found safe and sound.

About 700 Canadians were registered as being in Haiti at the time of the quake, Canon said, but the actual number may be closer to 6,000.

"We understand the situation is quite chaotic and the damage is extensive," Cannon said. "We feel for all Haitians, Canadians in Haiti as well as Canadians here at home that have family and friends in Haiti."

  • 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:
  • 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.

Aid groups, Canadians struggle to connect

Non-governmental aid agencies were struggling Wednesday to connect with their workers on the ground in Haiti, assess the need and mobilize workers and materials for dispatch.

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.

Even in the best of times infrastructure in Haiti is often barely functional, Toycen said. During a crisis the system breaks down almost completely, making it difficult for groups to deliver assistance to those who need it, he said.

Haiti is the second-largest recipient of Canadian development aid. More than 100,000 people of Haitian descent were living in Canada as of 2006, and the two nations have a long-standing relationship.

The following is a list of current projects Ottawa is involved with in Haiti, part of a promised $555 million to be delivered between 2006 and 2011.

  • $3.7 million for the reinforcement of the Haitian National Police's marine unit to purchase five boats.
  • $701,287 for the construction of a slipway and workshops at the Port-au-Prince naval base.
  • $3.6 million for "capacity building in migration management"
  • $4.4 million to construct the Croix-des-Bouquets detention centre

The following is a list of Canadian projects in Haiti that was released in February 2008.

  • $75 million for the construction and rehabilitation of the road between the cities of Jermie and Les Cayes
  • $19 million to improve reproductive health
  • $13.8 million for technical assistance to the Haitian State Project
  • $10 million to support school feeding programs
  • $5.4 million to help with tuition fees
  • $1.2 million for the Education for All program
  • $700,000 for disaster preparedness in Haiti

With files from The Canadian Press