Rescue flight to Saint Martin brings hope to stranded Canadians

Family members and friends of Canadians stranded on the small island of Saint Martin St. Maarten are hoping a WestJet flight will bring their loved ones home after days of complaints that they were abandoned by the federal government amid the devastation of Hurricane Irma.

Federal government was criticized for abandoning citizens amid devastation of Hurricane Irma

Toronto medical student Aamir Saiyed, who managed to escape the island on one of the last flights out, says more than 30 Canadians are trapped at the American University of the Caribbean school of Medicine after Hurricane Irma. (Gerben Van Es/Dutch Defense Ministry/Associated Press)

Family members and friends of Canadians stranded in Saint Martin are hoping a WestJet flight to the small island will bring their loved ones home after days of complaints that they were abandoned by the federal government amid the devastation of Hurricane Irma. 

The airline announced Monday it was sending a rescue flight from Toronto to collect some of those affected by the storm, set to depart for Canada around 5 p.m. AT. WestJet says it is being assisted by the Canada Border Services Agency and the Dutch military, which controls the airport on the Dutch side of the island. The other side is controlled by the French.

"We will be prioritizing Canadians who register with us in advance; followed by Canadians who are not able to register in advance; followed by non-Canadians with a valid passport and have permission to travel to Canada," the airline said in an announcement about the flight.

That's good news to Toronto medical student Aamir Saiyed, who narrowly escaped the storm just before it swept across the island.

Fears concerning looting

Saiyed wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday pleading for him to help remove the more than 30 Canadians holed up at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine on the island. 

An online petition calling for the same action amassed nearly 2,400 signatures in two days.

CBC News also spoke with Ontario teacher Todd Chisholm, whose cellphone service works for only seconds at a time and who is concerned about safety amid looting on the island.

"There's a bit of fear of how many days can we last on the supplies we have, knowing on other parts of the island there's pretty nasty things going on," Chisholm said during the few moments he had reception.

As of Sunday night, Saiyed and Chisholm had made no progress. That's despite Sunwing Airlines flying 189 international tourists comprised of Canadians, Americans and Europeans to safety earlier in the day.

Boarding 'managed by local officials'

"The boarding process was managed by local officials, and priority was given to individuals requiring medical attention and families travelling with children," Sunwing told CBC News in a statement Sunday. The airline did not have a breakdown of numbers by nationality, but did say the flight was a humanitarian flight and that there were no paying customers.

Meanwhile, Saiyed's colleagues remain stuck on the island both frustrated and fearful.

Todd Chisholm's family feels helpless, and hopes there's something the government can do to help stranded Canadians leave St. Maarten. (CBC)

Many, he said, had lined up at the island's severely damaged airport in the hope of boarding the Sunwing flight — only to be told it was full or turned back because they were not on "a list."

"Same story again. Calling Global Affairs, we get the same response," Saiyed told CBC News. "'We are working with the airlines' but nothing concrete."

Chisholm's mother and partner, Kimberley Babin, echoed that desperation Sunday. 

Government examining options

When they spoke to Chisholm Sunday morning, they say, his hope had turned to anxiety.

"He is very worried because of the looting that's going on," Dianne Chisholm said, recounting her son's description of people walking with machetes, looking for food and water. "It's getting very violent."

Aamir Saiyed (middle) managed to board one of the last flights to Canada from St. Maarten before Hurrican Irma struck. Back in Toronto, he's written an open letter directly to the Prime Minister, calling for those still stranded to be evacuated. (Submitted by Aamir Saiyed)

The pair said they had also reached out the Global Affairs Canada but were told to ask their loved ones to go to the airport and line up in the hope of boarding flights with Americans.

Global Affairs told CBC News on Sunday that 348 Canadians have sought help in the wake of Irma. Asked why it hadn't yet sent in military planes like the United States has, it said it's still examining options.

"Officers are working with local authorities around the clock for Canadians to leave and return to Canada as soon as possible," said Reid Sirrs, director general for emergency management and security with Global Affairs.

Government officials are actively reaching out to affected Canadians on the island by all available means to inform them of possible departure options, he said.

Sirrs also said airports and seaports in the Caribbean are beginning to move toward reopening as the system passes through, while those in Florida are doing the opposite. 

That's cold comfort for Babin and Chisholm, who worry that as Florida becomes the focus, those left in Saint Martin will be on the backburner amid what they say is increasing danger. 

Chisholm said the same during the seconds in which he spoke to CBC News over the weekend:

 "We're in safe zone right now but how long that safe zone will last, we're not sure."

With files from Katie Simpson