691 Canadians who wanted out of hurricane-struck Caribbean are home: minister

The federal government wants to learn lessons from its efforts to evacuate Canadians from the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean but stopped short Tuesday of apologizing to complaining travellers over how it handled the disaster.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she personally greeted a flight of returning Canadian passengers at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Monday night, and spoke with several passengers there and by phone. She gave them a letter soliciting feedback on how the government handled the emergency.

“I said in the note — I think my words were — I was very sorry for their ordeal, which I am. It was a very, very difficult experience for people,” Freeland said Tuesday at the cabinet retreat in St. John’s, N.L., with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

She also noted: “as the prime minister likes to say: better is always possible.”

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said 691 Canadians had been flown out of region, and that the majority of those stranded have now been able to return home.

Freeland said Monday night’s Canadian flights had extra seats that would have gone unfilled so they were offered to 53 travellers from other countries, including 40 Americans. No Canadian was denied a seat, she added.

Bibeau acknowledged that the federal government could have been more efficient at communicating with those affected and their families, but she suggested they could have been more helpful with notifying the government of their own whereabouts.

“We were in contact with the families, those who contacted us. Because once again, as travellers — and I include myself in that — we forget to consult the website of the government to get the advice concerning the countries where we are going.”

Bibeau said as far as she knows, all Canadians who wanted off the islands of Turks and Caicos and St. Maarten “have had the possibility” to get home as of Monday night.

She urged any other Canadians who still need help, or their families, to contact federal officials.

“We should always register for the government to know where we are in case of emergency. If we don’t do that and we don’t do that enough, well, then we have to wait for Canadians to inform us where they are.

“So this is why I insist: Please, if you know someone or if you are in a country affected, send an email to sos@international.gc.ca to make sure we know where you are and if you have special needs.”

Bibeau said federal officials are now on the ground in the Caribbean assessing how Canada might help with humanitarian aid and rebuilding after widespread destruction from hurricane Irma.

The military’s massive C-17 Globemaster will also touch down in the region soon loaded with supplies. It may be used to transport any remaining stranded Canadians back home if they have no other means getting out, said Freeland.

Stranded travellers and opposition critics have lambasted an evacuation effort that many said was slower and less organized than American operations.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he understands the frustration, but said Ottawa responded to a complex, difficult situation as quickly as it could.

“We mobilized right away at the beginning to deal with this situation and one of the challenges, which I spoke about was the challenge of being able to either land or take off from … the Turks and Caicos and St. Maarten.”

Freeland said she spoke with her British counterpart Boris Johnson as well as the British High Commissioner to help speed up the departure of flights from Turks and Caicos.

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