As I sat in my Cairo hotel last weekend trying to shutter out the sound of gunshots and looters, I wondered why I was placed on hold repeatedly by the Foreign Affairs Emergency Operations Centre in Ottawa - unable, after several attempts, to get a live voice on the phone.
I wasn't the only one infuriated by the inability to reach my own government at a time of crisis overseas. Several among the first wave of Canadian evacuees from Egypt echoed the same complaint - that Ottawa seemed asleep at the switch when several thousand Canadians were in dire need of consular assistance.
In fact, it was pure luck that some of us received word of the hastily arranged evacuation flights organized by Ottawa - the first of which took off from Cairo on Monday evening. I was one of fortunate few who received a return call, advising me to head to the airport as soon as possible for a flight to Germany.
To be sure, the emergency in Egypt had some unusual dynamics in play. First, the Internet had been shut down for days - meaning that Canadians and other foreign visitors had no way to register online or to send or receive e-mail messages. Second, the mobile phone system was temporarily disabled, and even when it was restored, text messages often ended up in a digital dead end. And third, a curfew from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and spreading lawlessness made mobility difficult for travellers, expatriates and diplomats alike.
Furthermore, foreign capitals are notoriously reluctant to issue a travel advisory or declare a public evacuation of their nationals from an allied country. Indeed, it's the diplomatic equivalent of the World Health Organization's declaring a cholera epidemic in a member state.
At the first signs of unrest, why weren't extra staff added to the Emergency Operations Centre in Ottawa? Why, amidst an Internet and partial mobile phone system blackout, wasn't the recorded greeting at the Canadian embassy in Cairo changed to provide Canadians with crucial emergency advice? (Turkey, for instance, organized relief flights for its nationals ahead of Canada, and managed to get word of the evacuation to the major Western media outlets.)
While we were all grateful to be on an evacuation flight, there was some confusion over why we were made to pay $400 for passage out of Egypt when all of us arrived well before travel advisories were issued. The students, young travellers and expatriate teachers on board clearly couldn't handle the sudden expense easily. We also heard from other evacuees at the airport that they weren't being charged by their respective governments for the one-way ticket out of Egypt.
And why were evacuees flown only to Germany, one of the most expensive countries in Europe - creating, in effect, another group of semi-stranded Canadians? Some of them elected to spend their first night in the airport terminal rather than shell out as much as $200 for a hotel bed.
We've all become accustomed to Ottawa's "cost recovery" for consular services. But are cuts going too far? Even before the uprising, our embassy in Cairo had been stripped to the bone, to the point where there's a three-year wait for citizenship applicants from the region.
Let's face it: Indiscriminate cutbacks have the potential to cost Canadian lives in an extreme overseas emergency. The uprising in Egypt won't be the last emergency requiring a robust response from Ottawa. With unrest already reported in Yemen, Jordan and Sudan, chances are Ottawa will have its hands full sooner than later. As Canadians, we deserve to know that, in times of trouble far from home, we can rely on Ottawa for, at the very least, a savvy and robust response.
Michael Bociurkiw, a resident of Sidney, B.C., is a correspondent for HUMNEWS.com.
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