Politics

Planes rescue stranded Canadians in Irma-hit Saint Martin, Turks and Caicos

Some Canadians stranded in region feel federal government has abandoned them, NDP critic says

St. Maarten Hurricane Irma

This photo provided by the Dutch defence ministry on Sunday, shows people walking toward a cruise ship anchored on Dutch side of Saint Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Gerben Van Es/Dutch Defence Ministry/AP)

 shares

After Hurricane Irma's devastation of islands in the Caribbean, the federal government is marshalling aid and planes to rescue stranded Canadians.

A WestJet Airlines plane has arrived in Saint Martin to collect some of those affected by the storm, including a limited number of non-ticketed passengers who are on the island, which is divided between French and Dutch (St. Maarten) control. Flight 4906 is scheduled to depart the island at approximately 5 p.m. ET and will arrive in Toronto later this evening.

Priority will be given to children, families and vulnerable people. The airline is asking people to register in advance of the flight through Facebook messengerTwitter direct message or by contacting the call centre at 1-888-937-8538.

"We are asking guests to calmly make their way to the airport for 1:30 p.m. local," the Calgary-based airline said in a statement.

"Please understand that this is a very fluid situation and we, along with the various agencies involved, are doing our best to safely bring home as many people as possible, understanding that the authorities are working on continued rescue efforts."

Other commercial airlines are expected to touch down in the region later today.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Monday an Air Canada plane in Turks and Caicos will depart later this afternoon carrying some 90 Canadians from the island's capital, Providenciales, to safety. Flight 1997 was scheduled to leave 3 p.m. ET and land in Toronto this evening.

Marc Garneau on bringing Canadians home after Hurricane Irma 0:45

This charter flight arrived Sunday but local officials blocked Canadians, many of who were vacationing at a local Club Med resort, from boarding the aircraft.

"I can totally understand how people feel," he said of frustrated Canadians who have been questioning the government's response time.

"The concern was that the infrastructure that had been damaged at the airport, the normal navigational aides, lightning, and communications equipment, were not up to the normal standards required to allow passenger aircraft to take off," he said.

St. Maarten Hurricane Irma

People board a military plane after the passage of Hurricane Irma, on Sunday, in a photo provided by the Dutch Defence Ministry. (Gerben Van Es/Dutch Defence Ministry/AP)

Another flight, operated by WestJet, will bring humanitarian aid to the island and take Canadians back today, Garneau said. Flight 4902 will depart at 6 p.m. ET bound for Toronto.

"I personally, and the government as a whole, very much understand and sympathize with how difficult this situation is," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said on a teleconference call with reporters. "This is a truly difficult, frightening situation and our top priority is focusing on those Canadians and getting them home."

Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary responsible for consular affairs, said all Canadians stranded in those two countries will be able to leave today. Others, on the neighbouring islands such as Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, will also be offered assistance.

Canadian response questioned

Some 9,000 Canadians have registered with Global Affairs Canada to say they are in Irma's path. Assistance has been requested by some 368 Canadians, with most requesting help to get home from areas hit by the storm. The government fielded calls and emails from 2,141 Canadians over the weekend.

The U.S. has already made use of military planes to get 1,200 American nationals out of the Caribbean region since Irma made landfall. Other countries, including the Netherland and the U.K., have also evacuated citizens with military aircraft.

Hurricane Irma Caribbean

In this Sept. 8, 2017 photo, people walk near debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Britain has sent a navy ship and troops to help people on the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos islands that were pummeled by the hurricane. (Gabi Gonzalez/AP Photo)

Canada will not send military planes, but will rely on commercial airlines, according to Global Affairs, prompting criticism from some stranded that the government isn't doing enough to rescue them.

Brenda Bot, an Orangeville, Ont., woman who owns property on Saint Martin, said the situation on the island has become increasingly unsafe and there is looting.

"Planes are coming and going but only for Americans to board and get home. We look pathetic as a nation and something needs to be done," she told CBC News.

Bot got on a flight bound for Canada before Irma hit but said many of her friends are still trapped.

'This chills me to the bone'

"I have always travelled with the thought that our Canadian government would look after me if something like this would happen. This chills me to the bone."

In a statement Monday, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole said the Conservatives are concerned the government hasn't responded quickly enough.

"We are asking [the government] to deploy Royal Canadian Air Force assets immediately to retrieve stranded Canadians who are facing delays in returning home," O'Toole said in the statement.

O'Toole also called on the government to deploy other military assets, including the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), after an initial assessment has been conducted. The government sent DART's assessement team to Antigua Monday.

Hurricane Irma Federal 20170911

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau at a news conference on help for Canadians affected by hurricane Irma in Ottawa. Bibeau said the government is doing all it can to bring Canadians home from affected regions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Hélène Laverdière, NDP critic for foreign affairs, said she has heard from Canadians in the region who feel like they have been abandoned as response to the crisis has been "slow and insufficient."

"The lack of communication from the government to Canadians in crisis, particularly those stranded in the Caribbean islands, is unacceptable when compared with the quick action shown by several other countries."

She said the Canadian government should have acted earlier — the storm made landfall in Saint Martin Wednesday — including chartering rescue flights, as has been done in the past.

"We are doing really the best we can to bring them back home," International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in an interview with CBC News.

Hurricane Irma damage video compilation 2:30

"We want to keep in touch and make sure they are safe, that's our first priority obviously. The airline companies are ready to go but we have to get the authorization from the local government because the infrastructure at the airport might be affected and they have to manage the flow of airplanes and they have priorities in terms of emergency," she said.

Vacation airline Sunwing picked up 189 Canadian, American and European tourists from Saint Martin on Sunday, and took them to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

Global Affairs said its best advice to stranded Canadians in the region is to stay in a safe place with food and water until more flights are available.

Canadians in hurricane-affected areas should email the Emergency Watch and Response Centre at sos@international.gc.ca and include as much personal and contact information as possible.

More information is available online here, on Twitter @TravelGoC and @CanadaFP and Facebook.

Canadians in Florida can call Global Affairs at 1-613-996-8885 for more information.

More On This Story