LONGUEUIL, QUE. --
Amid an "extraordinarily dire situation" on the ground in Afghanistan, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Monday that the government is committing to resettle thousands of Afghans "in the coming weeks.” With the opposition party leaders demanding better, the issue took centre stage on the first full day of the federal election campaign.
Speaking at an election stop in Quebec, Trudeau said that as of Monday at least 807 Afghans have been evacuated and 500 have arrived in Canada, though thousands remain stranded in an increasingly volatile and desperate situation.
Trudeau, who remains the prime minister during the election period, was briefed Monday morning on the latest developments and said that the government “firmly condemns the escalating violence.” He said that Canada is working with the U.S., the U.K. and other allies as well as international aid organizations on the promise to resettle 20,000 Afghans, pointing to the work underway on the ground.
For weeks, the Afghan interpreters who aided the Canadian military during their mission have been desperately trying to leave the country and are pleading for urgent help from the government. On Monday, new reports and striking footage has emerged of chaos at the Kabul airport where evacuations are underway, after the Taliban swept through Afghanistan’s capital on Sunday.
Trudeau faced a series of questions from reporters about the status of the government’s plans to navigate the tumultuous humanitarian situation, given that key cabinet members responsible are now also vying for re-election in the federal campaign launched by Trudeau on Sunday.
“The work that our foreign affairs minister, our, defense minister our immigration minister continue to do, even during a campaign is something Canadians can rely on. We take very seriously the situation,” Trudeau said.
While the U.S. first indicated an intent to withdraw this spring, the first Canadian evacuation flight out of Afghanistan left on Aug. 4, after the feds came forward with a plan to evacuate interpreters in July.
Trudeau sought to defend his government’s handling of the situation, saying that people in Afghanistan and around the world “have been dismayed by the speed at which things have happened, and quite frankly surprised by the speed at which things have happened on the ground.”
He said that Canada is “very hopeful” the air bridge will be re-established soon in order to bring more people to safety, but for now the situation is “extremely difficult” and hard to see after years of work and sacrifices as part of Canada’s decade-long mission.
“We have Canadian Armed Forces assets deployed in the region staging out of Kuwait, including aircraft,” Trudeau said, adding that the government is now “looking at” sending other military personnel in.
“We have to recognize the situation is extremely fluid right now, and exceedingly dangerous. We've seen the Taliban take control of the country. We need to make sure that the safety of those brave women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces who are doing this work on behalf of Canadians and on behalf of Afghans, are done safely,” Trudeau said.
There are an estimated 1,000 interpreters still living in Kabul. Many on Sunday rushed to the airport, the only way out of the capital, in a desperate bid to escape.
The fate of those Afghan interpreters is more complicated now that Canada has closed its embassy in Kabul and diplomatic staff have been removed. The remaining Canadian personnel are military and any paperwork processing for those still on the ground is happening remotely, Trudeau said.
One interpreter told CTV News on Sunday that he has filled out the necessary forms and completed the required tests to come to Canada, but still hadn’t heard about a flight.
‘UNACCEPTABLE,’ O’TOOLE SAYS
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said that Trudeau’s government “squandered” time this spring and referenced the women and girls in Afghanistan who will be facing Taliban subjugation.
“My heart also goes out to military families and veterans, many of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice there, or were injured in Afghanistan and hate to see that country in chaos and back in the hands of the Taliban. Mr. Trudeau knew for six months that the U.S. were going to withdraw and left some of the interpreters and contractors that were still there, that’s unacceptable. We have to work with our allies to provide as much aid as much humanitarian assistance as possible, that would be a priority for me as prime minister,” he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that Canada has a responsibility to do everything possible to ensure the safety of those who helped this country, but didn’t offer specific suggestions in light of the evolving situation.
“To the people in Afghanistan, or the folks that are here, Canadians that have got ties to Afghanistan, my heart breaks for the situation that you're going through right now,” Singh said.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul did put forward a specific suggestion on Monday, but one that wouldn’t be possible without a new Parliament and the evocation of the Emergencies Act, which is a move Trudeau didn’t make even in the face of a global pandemic.
Paul suggested that Parliament—which was dissolved on Sunday when the writs of election were drawn up—be recalled on an emergency basis, summoning MPs for an emergency debate.
“There needs to be a plan, and there needs to be accountability,” Paul said.
Without a seat, Paul would not be able to participate.
With a report from CTV National News’ Melanie Nagy and files from Denio Lourenco, and The Canadian Press.