Texas official disputes declining Quebec's Harvey aid and asking for prayers instead

Confusion over Quebec's offer to help Texans dealing with the effects of Harvey has generated a storm of a different kind, this one involving not rain and wind but religion and politics.

'We really appreciate all the support and all the offers... from the people of Quebec'

John (L) and Doug Lablanc yell up at rescue planes in Port Arthur, Texas. Residents of some Texas cities have begun returning home to assess flood damage from Hurricane Harvey. (Emily Kask/AFP/Getty Image)

Confusion over Quebec's offer to help Texans dealing with the effects of Harvey has generated a storm of a different kind, this one involving not wind and rain but religion and politics. 

Earlier this week, Quebec's International Relations Minister Christine St-Pierre called her Texas counterpart, Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, to offer the province's help with emergency relief efforts.

In media interviews following the call, St-Pierre suggested Pablos declined the offer of immediate aid. 

"He was not refusing. He was just saying, 'For the moment we manage, we can cope with the situation,'" St-Pierre told CBC News in an English interview Tuesday. 

"But at the same time he said, 'Thank you for your offer but at this moment the situation seems to be under control.'"

​St-Pierre added, "Maybe you find it very surprising but what he had asked is that he wants prayers from people from Quebec."

Pablos was appointed earlier this year by Gov. Greg Abbott, a staunch Republican with a large base among Christian conservatives. 

The office of Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, right, said it never declined aid from Quebec. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Controversy emerges

The Quebec minister's comments went largely unreported outside the province at first, but began to circulate later in the week when American news outlets gave them a political slant. 

"'Send prayers': Texas Republican turns down donated blankets, beds, manpower from Canada," reads one headline from the self-described progressive site Raw Story

The "Friendly Atheist" section of the religious affairs site Patheos ran a story billed: "Quebec Offered Texas Aid, But the Sec. of State Said They Just Needed Prayers."

​The lead of a Salon story reads, "May God help Texas, because Canada sure won't."

As those stories made the rounds of the internet, Pablos' office began receiving calls from across the U.S. and Canada.

"[They were] telling us they were ashamed that we were declining aid from Canada," said Sam Taylor, Pablos' press secretary. "That wasn't the case at all."

Christine St-Pierre, Quebec's minister of International Relations, spoke with her Texan counterpart again Friday after the controversy erupted. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Clearing up the confusion

Pablos did indeed ask for Quebecers' prayers, Taylor said, but he also informed St-Pierre that his office isn't responsible for determining disaster response needs. She was directed instead to the Department of Public Safety.

On Wednesday, the two governments had a follow-up conversation to further coordinate relief efforts. On Friday morning, after the controversy emerged, Pablos and St-Pierre spoke again. 

The purpose of the second follow-up conversation, Taylor said, was to see if St-Pierre's office was aware of the reaction to her comments. 

"They confirmed to us that they had received the contact information that they needed in order to send that aid package," Taylor said.

A spokesperson for St-Pierre issued a statement on Saturday that echoed the version of events provided by Pablos' office.

Quebec is sending 5,000 emergency hygiene kits to help relief efforts in Texas.

​"Contrary to what has been reported in the media, Secretary Pablos did not decline the minister's offer, but instead made sure Quebec made contact with the proper Texas state agency that receives assistance and aid from foreign governments," said Ann-Clara Vaillancourt.

Having now contacted Texas' Department of Public Safety, Quebec will be sending 5,000 emergency hygiene kits.

"We really appreciate all the support and all the offers that we've gotten not just from the government, but from the people of Quebec," Taylor said.