Most of the Canadians who were in Caribbean countries devastated by Hurricane Irma have returned home, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday.
Freeland, flanked by other members of the Liberal cabinet tasked with overseeing the government's response to the storm, said 301 Canadians were ferried home on commercial flights operated by Air Canada and WestJet Monday. That figure is in addition to the 390 Canadians evacuated from the region over the weekend.
Many of those Canadians were stuck in Saint Martin and Turks and Caicos, both of which suffered substantial damage from the Category 5 storm.
"The majority of Canadians most affected have now come home, and that's a huge relief to me," Freeland said. "We're glad they're back."
The Toronto-area minister said she met a flight arriving from the Turks and Caicos at Toronto airport last night — a flight that was set to leave from the country Sunday but was blocked by local authorities. Freeland handed passengers a letter upon arrival.
"I said in the note that I was sorry for their ordeal, which I am. I think it was a very difficult experience for people."
'Better is always possible'
Canadians stranded amid the destruction of Irma have been critical of the government's response, branding it slow and inept.
While many Americans were airlifted by the U.S. military out of the area over the weekend, Canadians were left to wait for commercial airlines to take them home days later. Other countries, including the Netherlands and the U.K., have also evacuated citizens with military aircraft.
A series of flights left the region Monday evening, five days after the hurricane made landfall in Saint Martin, the island jointly controlled by the Netherlands and France.
Freeland, responding to questions about criticism the government has faced, said, "Better is always possible."
"In the weeks to come, we will be interested to hear from people who were in the region about how we could do a better job next time," she said.
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Transport Minister Marc Garneau defended the government's efforts Tuesday.
"I'm not going to speak about the American situation, I'm going to speak about the Canadian situation," he told reporters. "We mobilized right away, at the beginning, to deal with the situation."
Garneau pinned delays in the Turks and Caicos on local officials who were reluctant to let planes leave because of infrastructure damaged by the storm.
"We had the availability of commercial airplanes to take care of the situation, the problem was getting them into a situation where they could actually bring people back," he said.
Mark Entwistle, Canada's former ambassador to Cuba, said the practice employed by previous Conservative and Liberal governments has been to help people return home in these situations, but the government has nothing to apologize for.
"It's not a free ride or a guaranteed service," he told CBC News. "I believe that these kinds of services should be on a cost recovery basis. There are thousands and thousands of Canadians who get themselves in all kinds of trouble around the world ... but I do believe in cost recovery. I think it's fair."
Another 53 foreigners, including some 40 Americans, relied on Canadian airlines yesterday to leave the region, the foreign affairs minister said.
Canada is also sending a C-17 Globemaster to the region to help deliver aid and collect those who have been unable to travel home commercially. That aircraft first flew to Bordeaux, France, to pick up humanitarian aid destined for the French territory of Guadeloupe.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the most pressing need now is for construction materials for islands like Barbuda that saw 98 per cent of its structures destroyed by the storm.