Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

People stand in driving snow as they queue for a bus to leave town in Sendai, Japan, Thursday, March 17, 2011. (Mark Baker/Mark Baker/The Associated Press)
People stand in driving snow as they queue for a bus to leave town in Sendai, Japan, Thursday, March 17, 2011. (Mark Baker/Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

Canadian blasts embassy's evacuation plan for tsunami-struck Japan Add to ...

Christian Paauwe couldn't feel sorry for himself when the massive earthquake and tsunami smashed his adopted hometown of Sendai in the northeast of Japan last week. He and his wife and infant daughter were badly shaken, but survived otherwise unscathed when so many others hadn't.

When he did start to feel a little hard done by was when other countries - including the United States, France, Germany, Finland, China, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand - started sending buses to pick up their nationals trapped in the tsunami zone. But for a week no one came for Mr. Paauwe, his family or the other Canadians in Sendai.

By the time he finally reached the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo after an 11-hour bus ride Friday, Mr. Paauwe was seething. "I would say that they weren't doing anything at all" for Canadians trapped in Sendai, he said. "Other people [still]want to get out."

It would be difficult for Canadian officials in Tokyo or Ottawa to claim they didn't know Mr. Paauwe and his family wanted to be evacuated. As soon as he had access to electricity, 40 hours after the quake, he placed a call to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to let them know he was in Sendai and needed help getting out.

The 29-year-old Vancouver native also made daily videos of his life amid the ruins of Sendai which he posted on YouTube, garnering thousands of views. Then on Thursday, he sent a despairing e-mail SOS.

When he wasn't trying to get the attention of the Canadian government, Mr. Paauwe and his Japanese-born wife spent their time fretting over where to find diapers and formula for their two-month-old daughter Marlon. They passed long hours standing in lines to get into stores that had little to sell, and wondering what possible effects the unfolding disaster 115 kilometres south at the Fukushima nuclear plant might be having on their little girl.

When a bus with a smattering of maple leaf decals stuck to the hood finally arrived Friday in Sendai, there was little advance warning and Mr. Paauwe said that although the bus left half empty, with 21 people aboard, including 17 Canadians, he knew of several other Canadians in town who wanted to be evacuated but had no idea that their rescue ride had come and gone. Even though the bus left with empty seats, Mr. Paauwe and his wife Marika were forced to leave Marika's elderly parents behind.

Mark MacKinnon on Twitter

It's unknown how many Canadians remain in the Sendai area, but Mr. Paauwe says he knows of "five or six," including one who does not want to leave. The others, he said, didn't know about the bus until it was too late. A second Canadian Embassy-chartered bus was to stay in Sendai overnight Friday, so that any Canadians still in the area could have another chance to get to Tokyo.

Sixteen other Canadians left Sendai on Thursday aboard a bus chartered by the New Zealand government.

The Canadian rescue was slower and less generous than those offered by some other nations. While the 17 who arrived at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo last night were not being offered anything beyond the bus ride, British citizens who made the same journey Friday were being put up at a four-star hotel in downtown Tokyo and had the option to take a flight out to London on Saturday.

"It's unfortunate, because I know the embassy has a great staff and I know they're doing a great job, I've never had a problem with them in the past. But when it comes to whoever is directing them back in Canada, they dropped the ball," Mr. Paauwe said.

Though no one at the Embassy in Tokyo would respond to Mr. Paauwe's criticisms, the Canadian effort to find citizens in Sendai was hampered by the fact many Canadians living in Japan (including Mr. Paauwe) never bothered to register their whereabouts with the Embassy. Also, mobile phones weren't working in parts of the Sendai region in the early hours and days after the quake, making it difficult to confirm who did and didn't want to leave.

Bureaucratic hurdles have also been a problem. Though Japan accepted 25,000 thermal wool blankets via the Canadian Red Cross, Tokyo has yet to respond to Ottawa's offer of technical assistance, including nuclear expertise and equipment as well as a 17-member forensics team that specializes in identifying the victims of natural disasters.

Canadian Embassy staff are still struggling to get a handle on how many Canadians were in Sendai before the tsunami, and how many might be left there. André Lachapelle, a 76-year-old Catholic priest, is the only Canadian known to have died in the disaster.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular