Monday, July 17, 2006

Canada Shameful in Slowness to Rescue Canadians

I haven't written about the Middle East conflagration because I am speechless. It's a war that one could see coming from years away, yet surprises by its suddenness. However, our government ought not to be surprised -- Canada taking a week -- a WEEK! -- to send in rescue ships for our Canadians stuck in Lebanon is unacceptable. Just another unsurprising instance of how our government is useless in a case of emergency when we're overseas.

On Global National last night the two pundits thought the government's response was fine. They must be the only two, outside of the civil service and their political servants, who think so. The rest of us, particularly those with families vacationing in the danger zone, are not so sanguine. We're wondering why the Italians have long since started air lifting their citizens out -- that's the country with the revolving governments and supposedly chaotic way of doing things. Seems to me they can read the tea leaves better and already had a rescue plan in place so that all they had to do was implement it at the first sign of rocket fire.

What was our foreign affairs department doing since the first soldier was kidnapped and Israel reacted like a slumbering beast kicked once too often? Are they incapable of dealling with more than one foreign situation at a time -- since the PM was heading off to the G8, they just couldn't wrap their heads around the daily worsening of the Middle East? I simply cannot fathom what Canada is thinking! How can they simply go dum-de-dum-de-dum while Canadians rapidly became trapped in a war zone?

No, the pundits are wrong. The government did not represent me in their slowness of response. They did not represent me when other countries rescued their citizens before mine even had a plan. They do not represent me in their cavalier attitude to helping Canadians abroad. Yes, some are pretty stupid going to unstable countries, but so are those who go into avalanche prone areas in the Rockies, and we still send in search and rescue teams immediately, not stand on the sidelines, wondering what to do, if we should do anything.

5 comments:

Mark Dowling said...

Maybe you could spell out what exactly *you* think the Government of Canada should be doing right now?

What facilities and transport assets do you think the G of C can have in place to lift 20,000 people in the timeframe you expect, particularly given the comparative difference in distance between Lebanon and Italy and Lebanon and Canada?

talk talk talk said...

Well, I'm not alone in thinking this, but some principles ought to be followed. The government knows how volatile that region is (plus they're aware of the situation in Kashmir, Pakistan, India, South Korea vis a vis North Korea, to name a few). They knew about the shelling going on between the Palistinians and Israelis, even before the first soldier was kidnapped, and how Syria and Iran are involved. In other words, although this particular crisis is unexpected (from a lay citizen's POV, but perhaps not in the government departments tasked with watching these situations closely), a crisis per se is not. Thus the Canadian government ought to have had a mass evacuation plan arleady in place. All they ought to have had to do when the crisis hit was implement it. This didn't seem to be the case.

From the news reports, it sounds like they're flying by the seat of their pants and were caught with no plan of evacuation having being formulated.

Anyway, what should the plan consist of, IMO? The fastest way is of course air transport. But governments past have relied on other countries for transport of our armed troops, and so it will be a few years before we will once again have the capability of transporting our armed troops, never mind citizens in danger in foreign lands. Lacking what every other country has...the next big transport mechanism is ships. For an ocean-bound country we ought to have ships available, but obviously not. I seem to recall it took DND about 2 weeks to be able to send a naval vessel to help with Hurricane Katrina victims, so obviously military vessels are not feasible. Did the government not have contracts with owners of the appropriate type of ship, in place to execute immediately? Or is the reason for them taking 8 days to get to Lebanon because they had to wing it?

They should also have had plans in place for evacuation by roads to Syria, and I believe some people (not Canadians) managed to get to Cyprus via Syria. If they'd had such a plan, they could've informed Canadians via television, at the embassy, e-mail (there are so many technological methods of communication available that it seems foolish that the Canadian government does not use them for Canadians heading to danger zones. The Middle East has been a danger zone for decades.) Exit by roads, with all contingencies thought of beforehand, could've been expedited for Canadians with a bit of aforethought on the government's part. Private citizens don't know all the ins and outs. Being able to go to the embassy and being given a map, so to speak, would've been a great help.

Just a few of my thoughts in answer to your question. The problem isn't that it's taking them 8 days to evacuate, it's that it took about 5 days to announce a plan, and it's taking about another 3 to get the ships there. The plan should've been announced the day after the crisis hit, at most.

The biggest problem I see, from the media reports, is no preplanning. That was foolish. Canada better wake up and have some preplanning for places like South Korea, with North Korea rattling its sabres, etc. I hope we will not see a repeat of this.

talk talk talk said...

Forgot to add...distance isn't the issue. It's getting Canadians to a safe country -- they don't have to get them all the way to Canada in one shot.

Mark Dowling said...

Canadians seem to demand disaster repatriation within hours from pretty much anywhere, including natural disasters. This (in addition to being ridiculous) means having about several different plans (various types of conflict and natural disaster) tailored for every country in the world. I'm not saying that's not how it should be but that's what you're talking about. Obviously some would be kept more up to date than others, like, um, Israel, Syria, Iran, South Korea, East Timor, Indonesia, the entire Caribbean during hurricane season and otherwise Haiti for sure, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, some of the Balkans, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka...

Now one thing I will say for the Libs is that they did have a point-man in McTeague who was generally media accessible in these situations - asking Harper what the plan was when he was in Moscow and being briefed from afar is a sign of the failure of not just Harper but Canadian politics in general to expect everything from PMO, which then gives them licence to run everything (badly). PMO should have been able to wheel out someone whose job it was to look after Canadians abroad. I don't mean McKay, I mean a grown-up.

Your comparison between mounting an operation to retrieve up to 40,000 Canadians and dual citizens from a war zone 7200km from St. John's NL and a couple of skiers stuck on a mountain near Whistler is so ridiculous I'm going to skip it. The Katrina response is detailed here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_response_to_Hurricane_Katrina) but it's worth noting that part of the delay in getting the naval response on station was... there were still storms in the Atlantic.

Even with a plan you have to have assets you own or you rent. Owning means you have more or less immediate access but it also means you have to pay to keep them serviceable when not needed. Generally speaking this means military. Renting can be through brokers or through "take up from trade" legislation to requisition air and sea assets from national carriers. Time was that wasn't so hard as utilisation of assets meant there was always something to spare. Now commercial assets are utilised intensively and spares are sold off rather than standing by.

We all know that there's no such thing as Canadian-flagged sea trade any more (Canada Steamship Lines flagging in Bermuda or wherever). Unlike Air France, Air Canada does not have a huge stake owned by the government so it cannot be ordered into the region, and even then the only place it can go is Larnaca or Damascus. Now, this is where the C-17 purchase will help. At the moment the govt is flogging the A310s (CC-150 Polaris) to and from Afghanistan. When the C-17s arrive the 310s will hopefully be more available for this kind of situation.

The problem with evac by road is that (a) it would be like 24 hrs a day rush hour, since the Syrians aren't just going to open the border and let people stream in and (b) the Israelis bombed several road accesses, some of which I think were near the Syrian border.

You mention that distance is not the issue and that's true in so far as it goes. So the first thing you've got to do is get them out of Lebanon. The problem is twofold. 1 - Syria is not a safe country for Canadians, especially dual nationals. Ask Maher Arar. 2 - Syria may also be unsafe if the conflict escalates. 3 - can't use Jordan or Egypt as you have to go through Syria (see 1,2) or Israel. 4 - Pretty much everybody's heading for Cyprus and while the island won't sink and being a holiday destination it's used to foreigners, it's hardly capable of housing everybody who wants to come even temporarily. This is why ships are needed to house these hundreds of thousands of people. Turkey might be a good bet for some but again you have to get there and overcome any visa issues and get consular support on the ground. Canada has obtained three airliners so even getting 4,500 people out to safe harbour every day at maximum throughput you can only fly them home at a rate of maybe 1,000 per day. How do you decide who goes first? How do people with limited finances survive in the meantime?

Britain is fortunate that HMS Illustrious with Chinook helicopters embarked aboard was three days away at top speed in Gibraltar - Canada doesn't have a ship of that size anywhere and Mulroney sold the Chinooks to the Dutch. So you have to hire and this is a seller's market so I'm sure the local shipping companies were pretty busy when Ottawa called - at least those with insurance to sail into a de facto war zone.

Could Canada be doing more, and better? Yes it can and it should. Is it doing a terrible job given all the circumstances? I am slower to agree with that.

talk talk talk said...

It's informative to compare the evacuation plans of other countries (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5184134.stm).

We seem to have the largest number of citizens needing to be evacuated (though I've heard various numbers given). I believe Britian has it right, in that you evacuate the neediest first. I assume that would be the elderly and those in frail health. As to who comes next, that's a question all countries face and I would hope Canada has figured it out as well as the next country. The standard is women and children first.

Many governments have managed to get their citizens to Syria via buses. I would think that if the US and Canada are on good enough speaking terms to whisk Arar to Syria, they can arrange for safe passage of their citizens during this crisis. That may be why other countries have chartered buses, as opposed to telling civilans to take their cars, as a way to signal to Syria these people belong to country x and are to be given safe passage through as part of the evacuation agreement. I would think that governments would have to secure Syria's permission first before sending busloads of people to the border, especially since many would not have the necessary visas. Syria has opened the border and allowed buses in filled with citizens from Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Poland, etc. etc. So that does seem to be a feasible mode of evacuation, not for 40,000, but for some. And some is better than zero. I doubt every Canadian visiting Lebanon would be in danger if they had to go through Syria; thus this would be one part of an effective plan.

Of the countries listed, we seem to be about the last to get going and are in company with the Phillipines, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Finland, Bulgaria and New Zealand, none of whom are in the G8. We expect more from our government because Canada talks about being a middle power, a player on the international stage, and is in the G8. We SHOULD be able to do better.

This is known as the chickens coming home to roost. Past governments have bled the military dry; they have ignored the equipment needs of our troops, putting their lives in danger just by doing their routine jobs; and now the lives in danger are civilians. However, I also know that the Foreign Affairs department is not very good at helping citizens in distress, even when said citizen's family asks for help. In other words, it isn't just a lack of equipment to do the job, it's an attitude problem -- all talk and no action.

One could argue that if you're going in a danger zone, don't expect the government to pull you out, especially if that would put pilots and ship crew at risk (that was the analogy to the avalanche area -- knowingly and willingly putting your life at risk and expecting to be rescued when the obvious happens -- and "an avalanche area" is not a groomed ski hill near Whistler with precise explosions done to prevent avalanches, but in the remote regions of the Rockies, accessible only by helicopter or trekking in. Canada is a VERY wild country.). But we claim to be a compassionate country. Compassionate people rescue even the stupid or foolhardy.

DND used to use Air Canada to transport troops routinely. That's the price of deregulation, I guess. Someone wasn't paying attention when they allowed that sort of asset, of being able to call upon Air Canada's big planes in an emergency, to slip away.

As for our response to Katrina -- evacuations started on August 24th for Florida and 26th for Gulf Coast(28th for New Orleans), the storm hit on August 29th, Canada announced its official response on September 2nd, and four days later, the armada left Halifax. The storms were not the biggest reason for the long time to get there. And it's interesting that it was a municipal HUSAR team that got out the gate immediately, being slowed only by US security concerns.

I agree with you about our sea trade -- it's shameful Paul Martin did nothing about it -- and our air capability. Is Canada doing a terrible job, given the way governments past have depleted our resources and abilities to rescue? Maybe, maybe not. But it is shameful that the Foreign Minister or Public Safety Minister were not on the news right from the beginning, assuring families here. It is shameful that they don't seem to have had plans already drawn up that take into account our limited resources (seems to me an even more pressing reason to have plans in place). And I'm not willing to let them off the hook. For too long, Canada has treated citizens abroad with an attitude of complacency and bureaucratic nonsense. It's only when the numbers hit 40,000 that we notice. Our politicians need to know that this is no longer acceptable.

As to how people with limited finances survive? I have no idea. Even more reason for Canada to be moving at a faster clip!