Does the Canadian government owe an apology to Irma evacuees?

Canada's response to Irma does not compare unfavorably to that of other governments dealing with the disaster. One former ambassador to Cuba believes that tourists who travel in hurricane season should take more responsibility for their choices, including paying for their rescue.

And did Canada's response really lag behind other countries?

The first of three planeloads of Canadians stranded for days in the Caribbean in the wake of Hurricane Irma arrived in Toronto Monday night — weary, exhausted and relieved. Some were upset the Canadian government did not do more to get them home sooner. (Marie-Christine Demers/CBC)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's use of the word "sorry" over the past couple of days — as in, "I'm very sorry for your ordeal" — left room for different interpretations.

Was she apologizing for some deficiency in her government's response to Canadians trapped in the Caribbean in the wake of Hurricane Irma, or was she just expressing sympathy for a difficult and frightening experience?

"I feel deserted by my government because they sent the flight in after the hurricane, not before," said one Canadian traveller arriving home Monday from Turks and Caicos aboard a commercial airliner. "We were relatively safe, but [the fact] that we were put in that harm's way is appalling."

But one former Canadian diplomat sees things differently.

"I personally don't think the government of Canada has to apologize really for anything," said Mark Entwistle, who formerly served as Canada's ambassador to Cuba, the Caribbean nation with the highest confirmed loss of life from Irma.

Family members held up signs saying '#Escaped Irma' and 'Welcome home' at the Montreal airport Saturday as Canadians arrived home from Cuba after Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean. (CBC)

Canada has airlifted 1,652 citizens out of the Caribbean since Saturday, according to the latest figures from Global Affairs. Entwistle sees the evacuation as a logistical feat, and said evacuees can thank the flight crews who pulled them out through airports that are barely functioning, and the taxpayers who, so far, are footing the bill for co-ordinating the effort.

"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, mostly of course not of their own fault, although from time to time they just make dumb decisions."

Warnings ignored?

Many of the Canadians caught by Hurricane Irma were already in the region when the storm formed: permanent or seasonal residents of the islands; people who operate businesses there; medical students studying there; or people on longer vacations.

Others travelled to the region after it became clear there was a danger.

Global Affairs began issuing travel advisories and warnings about Irma on Sept. 3. The French and  Dutch sides of the island of Saint Martin, as well as St. Barts, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, and other Antillean islands that were among the most devastated by the hurricane, were included in those first warnings to Canadians to "avoid all non-essential travel."

Warnings followed shortly after for the Turks and Caicos and other islands farther along the path of Irma's Caribbean rampage, including warnings to "avoid all travel," the highest level of advisory.

Some travellers clearly chose to ignore them. CBC News spoke to the brother of one man seeking assistance in the province of Matanzas, Cuba. He had flown into his resort on Sept. 8 on one of the last available flights before Irma struck, three days after Global Affairs warned Canadians to "avoid non-essential travel to eastern and central Cuba, Matanzas province eastward to Guantanamo."

This scene of devastation in St. Maarten was captured from a contracted Dutch coast guard patrol plane. The aircraft was piloted by Canadians working for Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace. (Wade Fleet)

"The debate is a bit around where the line lies between personal responsibility when you decide to travel overseas and leave your home base," said Entwistle. "Going into the Caribbean in hurricane season has risks to it."

Other governments criticized

Many Canadians caught by Irma showed both fortitude and gratitude, but some complained their evacuation flights took longer to arrive than those sent by other nations.

Brenda Bot, who owns property in St. Maarten and travels there frequently, had harsh words for the government's handling of the situation.

"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," said Bot, who spoke to CBC News from her home in Orangeville, Ont.

"We look pathetic as a nation and something needs to be done," she said, after the U.S. sent military flights to remove some of its citizens from the island.

And yet dozens of U.S. citizens on the Turks and Caicos were able to get home thanks to rescue flights sent from Canada.

In Cayo Coco, Cuba, the BBC spoke to British tourists who complained their government had let them down. "They really should have got us out earlier," complained one. "We saw the Canadians leave, the Argentines leave, and we were all sitting at the hotel and with no one telling us anything."

A photo provided by the Dutch Defence Ministry on Sunday shows people walking into a military plane on St. Maarten, after the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Gerben Van Es/Dutch Defence Ministry/AP)

Even on the Dutch territory of St. Maarten, the Netherlands government found itself forced to explain why Canadians were being airlifted out while its own citizens languished.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his government was focused on saving the patients in St. Maarten's hospital, including people who needed kidney dialysis or were about to give birth.

"The Netherlands had one major priority … that is, evacuating the patients. Other countries with tourists — the Canadians, the Americans — don't have that."

Lack of forward thinking

Like France and Holland, the U.K. government has had to defend its response to Irma, particularly the failure to plan ahead and pre-position resources on its Caribbean territories.

The U.K. carries sole responsibility for defence and emergency response on some of the worst-hit islands, such as Anguilla and Tortola (part of the British Virgin Islands). Half a million British nationals were affected by Irma.

Freeland updates reporters on Hurricane Irma flights

6 years ago
Duration 1:32
Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to reporters at the federal cabinet retreat in St John's

A British supply ship is in the area and has delivered aid. But the main British response vessel, HMS Ocean, was still in Gibraltar when the hurricane hit, and set sail late Tuesday night for the Caribbean.

By the time it begins assisting people, some of Irma's survivors will have been homeless for two weeks. The delay prompted the chairs of the U.K. Parliament's foreign affairs and international development committees to write in protest to Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.

"In Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Turks and Caicos, our response still requires improvement and the arrival of HMS Ocean in two weeks' time will be later than any of us would wish."

As for France, its response ship, the Tonnerre, also didn't leave its home port of Toulon until yesterday and will take 10 days to reach French Caribbean islands.

Canada, in contrast, pre-positioned HMCS St. John's in Norfolk, Va., before Irma struck, placing it within a couple of days' steaming time of the disaster zone. And a Canadian Forces C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft is helping the French government get supplies from Bordeaux to its stricken territory of Guadeloupe. That aircraft is also expected to bring more Canadians out.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau were among the ministers who spoke at a news conference Monday on Ottawa's response to the disaster. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Later assessments may yet reveal deficiencies in Canada's response, but in at least this area Canada seems to have shown more foresight than its European counterparts.

Limits of the possible

The disaster is spread across many islands, hampering everyone's relief efforts. Ports are choked with wrecked and sunken boats.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau described conditions at the main airport on Grand Turk as dangerously precarious. "The normal navigational aids, lighting and communications equipment, were not up to the normal standards required to allow passenger aircraft to take off."

And yet they did take off, because the civilian flight crews were willing to fly anyway.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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