As hundreds of Canadians flew home after days of being stranded by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, the federal government defended its response to the crisis.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said a WestJet plane was set to evacuate about 150 Canadians on Monday from St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island of Saint Martin. An Air Canada flight from Turks and Caicos with about 90 people on board landed in Toronto Monday night, and a WestJet flight with 30 passengers was scheduled to arrive from the island chain soon after.
Even as criticism from opposition parties and stranded Canadians continued to mount, Mr. Garneau stood by the government's response to what he described as a "chaotic situation" in the wake of the Category 5 hurricane and said the government's priority is to get all of the affected Canadians out.
"Getting Canadians home is our priority and we've been working closely with our international partners, with the airport in those Caribbean locations and with the airlines to make this happen," Mr. Garneau said at a briefing with other ministers and government officials in Ottawa on Monday.
Asked by reporters why military aircraft hadn't been deployed earlier, Mr. Garneau said that the military is a backup in these situations, while commercial planes are the first option. A federal official later told The Globe and Mail that the government didn't send military aircraft because "the capacity with the private carriers is there."
Some Canadians still awaiting evacuation from the Caribbean, along with their relatives back home, say the response is too little, too late, charging that Ottawa should have sent its own planes to the desolated islands to recover Canadian nationals, as the United States did for many of its citizens.
"I'm really disappointed at the lack of support from our government," said Alex Bradu of Calgary, a student at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in St. Maarten, who was allowed to board a U.S. military plane to Puerto Rico on Sunday after failing to secure a seat on a Sunwing flight out of St. Maarten. He was among the handful of foreign nationals who joined more than 1,200 U.S. citizens airlifted from the island by the Puerto Rico and New York Air National Guard. "I'm just really impressed that the U.S. government came through for their people and everybody else at the same time. … It's just the Canadian government that I'm upset and disappointed with."
Mr. Garneau said local officials (in both St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos) were not allowing commercial flights to leave for safety reasons, but after a discussion with Canadian government officials, the planes were permitted to leave as soon as 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday.
"The concern was that the infrastructure [that] had been damaged at the airport – I'm talking about the normal navigational aids, lighting and communication equipment – were not up to the normal standards required to allow large passenger airplanes to take off," he said. "They had allowed it to come in for humanitarian reasons … but they were not going to allow it [to] take off until the government of Canada had discussions with them."
Speaking to reporters in Toronto on Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Canadians remaining on St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos by midweek would be able to return on a government C-17 plane bringing humanitarian aid to the region.
"We are not going to rest easy until all the Canadians who are there in this very, very difficult situation have been evacuated and have been able to come home," she said.
Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to Ms. Freeland, said the government has processed 2,140 consular calls and e-mails from Canadians affected by Hurricane Irma, with 368 requests for assistance. He said Ottawa is aiming to evacuate all of those who have requested assistance by the end of Monday. Mr. Alghabra said there are no reports of Canadian casualties.
In addition to St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos, government officials said Canadians have asked for assistance in other islands hit by the hurricane: Anguilla, Antigua, the Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, St. Barthélemy, British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. They said it is hard to know exactly how many Canadians are affected as they are relying on people to reach out to Global Affairs.
The government said it has increased the number of staff working at its emergency-response centre in Ottawa.
Still, Canadians with friends and family in the affected region called the federal response to the disaster disappointing and chaotic. "The information I was getting from my personal connections was better than what Global Affairs was giving me until about lunchtime today," said Robyn Berman, whose sister lives on the island of Saint Martin and made it onto one of the departing WestJet flights on Monday.
Meanwhile, the federal Conservatives also criticized what they described as a slow response from the government.
"We are concerned that the government has not responded quickly enough to help stranded Canadians return home given the magnitude of the destruction from these storms and the impact on infrastructure on these islands," Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole said in a statement on Monday.
NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said the government's handling of Irma raises "serious questions" about Canada's response to future natural disasters.
Over the weekend, commercial evacuation plans hit a snag. Ninety-five Canadians were left stranded at a Turks and Caicos airport on Sunday after trying to return home from Air Canada Vacations and Club Med properties. The carrier had sent a chartered flight to the territory, originally carrying 58 electrical workers on a relief mission, and intended to evacuate the Canadians with the same plane.
While the airport's regular flight operations were shut down on Sunday, an Air Canada spokesperson said humanitarian flights were exempted. But airport and civil aviation authorities did not allow the carrier to board the passengers, the spokesperson said, despite having been told that such a charter flight was allowed. That flight landed in Toronto on Monday night.
Conditions on the island of Saint Martin remained harsh, people there say. For five days now, there has been no power or running water while Internet and phone communications have been sporadic.
"Total and utter devastation on the island. This is one time in my life that we will never forget," said Michael Natlacen, a Montrealer who has lived on the Dutch side of the island for a decade.
In an audio file e-mailed to The Globe, Mr. Natlacen described how his two-level concrete home continuously shook during the hurricane's landfall on Wednesday, as if "a wrecking ball hit your house."
While his home was in a remote spot, he heard from friends elsewhere in St. Maarten who painted a picture of sporadic anarchy and civil unrest, with looting, reports of firearms stolen from the customs office and machine gun shots heard on the French side of the island's lowlands.
"It's been crazy. … It's tough, but we're in good shape," he said.
Ms. Freeland declined to say whether the government considered reports of looting and street violence on the island credible.
"I think many Canadians who are there are quite naturally frightened," she said. "People have told me they're hot, they're tired, they're thirsty. It is understandably a chaotic situation and they're keen to get home."
Canadians affected by Hurricane Irma are encouraged to contact the government at 1-613-996-8885 or email@example.com.