Inside Politics

Evacuation: The lessons of Lebanon

"The safety and security of Canadians is of utmost concern to the Government. Put simply, there is no higher priority. For this reason, extensive efforts were undertaken to meet the urgent needs of all Canadians seeking to flee the deteriorating security situation and return to Canada."

Sound familiar?

Aside from the past verb tense, this could be mistaken for what foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon -- or the prime minister, for that matter -- has been saying to reassure Canadians the government is doing all it can to help its citizens get out of Egypt.

In fact, these words are from former foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay testifying before the standing committee on foreign affairs following the evacuation of 13,000 Canadians from a war-torn Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

MacKay described the operation then as "several times larger in scale and scope" than other recent emergency events, including the 2004 tsunami in South Asia.

Admittedly, the context was different in Lebanon, which was a country at war in the wake of the July 12, 2006, Hezbollah attack on Israel. That country fought back through attacks by air, ground and water.

Still, there are some similarities to the current situation in Egypt - and clues to things worth watching for in coming days.

For instance, the supposed lack of embassy staff in Cairo. Indeed, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff referred to the staffing situation in his lead-off question in Monday's Question Period as a way of emphasizing what happens when governments cut services.


Lebanon: By the numbers

At the height of the 2006 crisis, the Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was making 5,000 calls a day to citizens in Lebanon.

By July 30, 2006 the department had evacuated 13,052 people from Beirut.

DFAIT also:

  • coordinated 32 ferry passages out of Lebanon and 50 flights to Canada;
  • issued 425 emergency passport;
  • responded to more than 45,000 phone and email inquiries.
In order to help the nine staff members in Beirut:

  • DFAIT sent 174 staff to the region;
  • Defence sent 150 personnel;
  • Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency provided 34 employees.
Source: DFAIT briefing note
During the Lebanon crisis, there were concerns about the lack of staff at the Beirut embassy, which MacKay called "relatively small... in contrast to the large resident Canadian community, one of the largest of any Western country in Lebanon."

Monday, Cannon denied the Egyptian embassy was short-staffed, and blamed difficulties in reaching the embassy on the general telecommunications shut-down in Egypt.

And then there is the issue of cost. The government is taking some heat for making people pay their own way out of Egypt.

Back in 2006, there was no question of making anyone pay. By the time thousands of Canadians had been evacuated, the final price tag was close to $100 million. In a backgrounder document obtained by CBC News under access-to-information in the wake of the crisis, this question of cost is tackled head on. (View the full document below.)

The question: Why are we paying to evacuate people who have not lived in Canada - or paid taxes here - in some cases for years?

The answer: Foreign affairs and International Trade Canada is mandated to provide, on behalf of the Canadian government, assistance to all Canadian citizens abroad regardless of their country of residence."

After Lebanon, the question of dual-citizenship became a thorny political issue.

This time around, Ottawa seems to be following the lead of Washington in coordinating evacuation flights, but doing so on a "cost-recovery" basis - making the passengers pay their way - which the United States is compelled to do by law.

Despite the differences between the Lebanon crisis and the events in Egypt, there are lessons for any government. The lack of embassy staff seemed to be an issue back then and could return as an issue this time around. And the speed with which we act could be another issue, as Ottawa seeks this time to avoid accusations it is moving too slowly, as it faced in 2006.

Whether the government learned important lessons from the Lebanon crisis in 2006 - still in the early days of the Harper government, after all - may be too early to tell. Still, it's worth noting that we've been down this kind of road before.

If you have any feedback on this story, or general observations of our funding of missions abroad, please feel free to contact me at david_mckie@cbc.ca

Briefing Material on Lebanon Evacuation, Foreign Affairs, March 29, 2008.
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