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Five-year-old old Dania Dion-Lachapelle in her new room with parents Marlyne Lachapelle and Benoit Dion. Dania arrived from Haiti Sunday (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Five-year-old old Dania Dion-Lachapelle in her new room with parents Marlyne Lachapelle and Benoit Dion. Dania arrived from Haiti Sunday (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Adoptive families greet Haitian orphans Add to ...

Benoit Dion was out with his wife Saturday night when his cellphone rang at 8:30 p.m. It was a call he'd been anticipating for days, with news he'd dreamed about for years.

"We're working to get orphaned children out of Haiti as soon as possible," the Canadian immigration official said, Mr. Dion recalled. "Be prepared to come to Ottawa on Sunday morning." A few hours later, a little after midnight, the government called with confirmation: 5½-year-old Dania, the girl Mr. Dion and his wife, Marlyne Lachapelle, had been hoping to adopt, was coming out of Haiti. So Sunday at 4 a.m., the pair got in their Kia and drove the two hours from their home northwest of Montreal.

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And so it was, in a room at the Ottawa airport Sunday morning, Mr. Dion and Ms. Lachapelle beheld the shy little girl they'd been struggling to bring to Canada. The couple dropped to their knees and embraced the child, who was now their daughter.



"We cried and covered her in kisses," Mr. Dion, a 44-year-old sound engineer, said of the private moment. "It almost seemed unreal. I almost had to pinch myself to believe it. It had been so long, so much waiting."

The evacuation of 24 Haitian orphans to Canada yesterday marked the culmination of a behind-the-scenes effort by the federal government and brought a collective relief to worried parents across Canada. The children who descended from an Air Canada flight bundled in blankets yesterday were already approved for adoption before this month's earthquake, but their cases were expedited by Ottawa as orphanages faced increasingly dire conditions.

For some parents the calls to get their children came even later - 2 a.m. "It's like we had stopped living - we were living just for her," said Gervais Poulin, who travelled to Ottawa from his home near Quebec City to pick up his daughter, Joanne, newly outfitted in boots and a snowsuit.

"This is the most beautiful day of our lives," said his wife, Nathalie Demers. Of the children who arrived in Canada yesterday, 15 went to families in Quebec while the rest went to British Columbia, New Brunswick and Alberta.

The evacuation mission required nimble planning and swift execution. Duncan Dee, chief operating officer of Air Canada, got a call from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Friday asking if the airline would be ready to evacuate the children; Air Canada had a humanitarian flight heading down to Port-au-Prince with medical and other supplies on Saturday, and would have room for evacuees.

Mr. Dee, a veteran of humanitarian relief operations for the airline, quickly assembled a response team. Twenty Air Canada staffers designated as caregivers went to work buying diapers, toys and baby formula. An airline doctor and nurse, joined by a four-member Canadian Forces medical team, came in. Meanwhile, the Canadian military assisted on the ground in the congested Port-au-Prince airport, helping guard the children's passage into the aircraft after they arrived by bus convoy from the Canadian embassy.

When the children boarded Air Canada Flight 2151 in the nighttime darkness of Port-au-Prince, their eyes were wide with wonder and their slender wrists were clamped with name tags. After they settled silently into their seats amid doting caregivers, a crewmember's voice delivered a message on the intercom.

"For the children who are with us today, a great new adventure is waiting for you."

The words were repeated in English, French and Creole. And soon the Airbus A330 was aloft over a crippled Port-au-Prince, spiriting the orphans to their new lives.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Withers, one of two military doctors monitoring the children's condition on the plane, came on board fully stocked with rehydration fluid, antibiotics, IV drips and other emergency supplies.

"They've been through amazing stress and also had a challenging childhood to start with. They've just been through a massive tragedy that they may not have understood," Col. Withers said on the flight heading down to Haiti. After tending to all the children on the way home, he said that, aside from some stomach ailments, the children were in good health. "It's been reassuring," he said.

In Seat 18G, Silvana Freitag cradled an 11-month-old girl named Élise, who rested peacefully in a T-shirt patterned with Canadian maple leafs.

"It's wonderful to bring 24 kids, but I wish we could bring 300," said Ms. Freitag, an Air Canada customer sales agent who volunteered for the flight.

Former Canadian ambassador Frank McKenna, who was on the plane with the OneXOne Foundation to deliver humanitarian aid, called the orphans' evacuation "extraordinary."

"It feels like a small glimmer of something positive" in the struggling country, he said on board the plane.

"They're going to families that are full of love and who want these children, something they haven't seen for a long time."

A total of 154 children from Haiti have been cleared for adoptions by the Haitian government, and Mr. Kenney said several more are expected in coming days.

Canada is trying to evacuate adoptees as quickly as possible as flights become available and the children can be safely transported from orphanages to the Canadian embassy during daylight.

After a long and emotionally intense day, Mr. Dion and Ms. Lachapelle, who already have four grown children, brought their daughter to her new home in Saint-Colomban. By evening, the girl was getting acquainted with her new bedroom and the family dachshund, Maya.

"When I finally held Dania, tears came to my eyes," Ms. Lachapelle recalled of their initial meeting. "I've been waiting for her for three years."

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