Exagerated Claims: Assessing the Canadian Military's Haiti Earthquake Response

By Roger Annis

Published in Haiti Liberte, Vol 3 #12, October 6, 2010

For the past several months, the Canadian armed forces have staged speaking events in cities across Canada to vaunt its role in Haiti in the month following the earthquake. Vancouver got its turn on Sept. 17 when one of the commanders of the two warships sent to Haiti shortly after the earthquake spoke at two events.

Commander Josée Kurtz of HMCS Halifax spoke before a small public forum hosted by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. For several weeks prior, the Institute featured a large photo display at its entrance of the military's presence in Haiti following the earthquake, a mission it calls Operation Hestia.

Commander Kurtz's ship arrived eight days after the earthquake and was stationed off Jacmel for five weeks; the sister ship, HMCS Athabasca, was stationed off the coast of Léogane for the same duration. The Halifax carried a full complement of 250 sailors as well as close to 200 Canadian soldiers.

The commander stated that the fundamental mission of both ships was to provide "security and stability" in and around their assigned areas, Jacmel and Léogane. She gave an overview of the ships' work during their five weeks of service, saying the goal was to "save lives, mitigate suffering and assist the onshore activity of Canadian and other police, military and aid agencies."

"We didn't provide care in the beginning," she said. "Our first task was to secure order."

Once order was deemed established, the ship's crew began to assist with tasks like removing small amounts of rubble and building latrines, kitchens and water distribution facilities. One of the first jobs was to clear trees at the Jacmel airport to allow large transport aircraft to land. No crew members stayed onshore overnight, said the commander, due to potential "danger" from Haitian civilians.

HMCS Halifax provided no medical aid to the civilian population, the commander stated. It assisted the modest medical service of the Canadian military's Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) that was already onshore when the Halifax arrived. As a study by John and Emily Kirk in April 2010 reported, the Canadian military provided no surgical assistance to Haiti following the earthquake. Its medical presence amounted to a first-aid station that would refer cases requiring serious medical attention to other services in the immediate region or in Port-au-Prince.

It's worth noting that Canada's Prime Minister did not give "security and stability" as the two ships' mission when they set sail, nor since. "Ships of the Atlantic fleet were immediately ordered to Haiti from Halifax, loaded with relief supplies," PM Stephen Harper said at the time.

"Sailors didn't take aboard much in the way of relief aid - food packages, medical supplies or shelters - for distribution to Haitians," reported the Halifax Chronicle Herald on March 12, 2010 (the article has disappeared from the newspaper's website, its text is appended below.)

The CBC had a reporter and photographer embedded on the ships. They didn't report on any supply missioning either. One wrote, "The 41-year-old HMCS Preserver, the navy’s only east supply ship, could work wonders here. Its big belly full of food and medical aid, its shore launches and its extra hangar space would be welcome.

"But it’s not to be."

The Chronicle Herald reported that, according to opposition critics, "Harper doesn't seem to know what he's talking about." The ships, it seems, were "loaded" mainly with soldiers and guns.

"During the voyage," the story said, "some sailors wondered if the ships might have been better off staying in port a little longer - say 12 hours - to take on more relief supplies, food aid and medical equipment before sailing for Haiti." 

Nothing that Commander Kurtz reported to the Sept. 17 forum contradicted the newspaper report.

The Canadian naval mission stayed in Haiti for five weeks. When the HMCS Halifax departed, it did so in a disruptive and destructive fashion, as the Mar. 23 Globe and Mail reported at the time. The mission took its mobile air traffic control equipment with it, along with the heavy lift equipment it had temporarily installed at the Jacmel port. To this day, Jacmel's roads and neighborhoods remain littered with rubble and most of the region's earthquake victims still live in deplorable conditions.

Commander Kurtz summed up the mission's work by saying, "It proved Canada's capacity to deploy in places struck by natural disaster. The officers and sailors in the Canadian Navy remain ready to deploy to other places, confirming Canada's commitment to international engagement."

The commander trumpeted primarily Canada's capacity to "deploy" abroad. But deploy for what purpose? Why hasn't the Canadian government (or its allies) "deployed" personnel and heavy equipment to help Haitians remove earthquake rubble, repair roads and bridges, rebuild electrical and communications infrastructure or essential public institutions like schools and hospitals, improve medical services, and so on?

During the discussion period of the UBC forum, the commander acknowledged there are serious questions to be asked about Haiti's state of affairs but said she was not in a position to voice her frank opinion.

* For an article comparing the medical contribution to Haiti by Cuba, the U.S. and Canada, see: http://canadahaitiaction.ca/node/347.

* The story of Canada's decision, three days following the earthquake, to not send its civilian search and rescue teams to Haiti is told here: http://www.torontosun.com/news/haiti/2010/01/17/12504981.html.

* Further below is an article reporting on how Canada resisted pleas to keep its post-earthquake military operation in Haiti longer.


Opposition: Harper’s Haiti claim mistaken

By STEPHEN MAHER Ottawa Bureau
Halifax Chronicle Herald, Fri. Mar 12, 2010

OTTAWA — When HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax were ordered to sail on a humanitarian mission to Haiti on Jan. 13, they worked through the night, passing boxes hand to hand, loading stores aboard the ships — everything they would need for the humanitarian mission.

But sailors didn’t take aboard much in the way of relief aid — food packages, medical supplies or shelters — for distribution to Haitians.
In the House of Commons on Thursday, during his response to the speech from the throne, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said otherwise.

"Ships of the Atlantic fleet were immediately ordered to Haiti from Halifax, loaded with relief supplies," he said as he recapped the government’s efforts to help Haiti recover from the earthquake.

Harper doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about, say opposition critics.

"It seems to be odd to me," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris. "They’ve been claiming all along that these vessels were bringing relief supplies. Obviously there’s a serious error in communications with the public."

"It’s a fairly serious mistake," said Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh. "The prime minister may have inadvertently misspoken. I think he needs to clarify whether or not what he said was true."

When the ships arrived off Haiti, later in January, sailors were put to work in the blazing sun, doing manual labour for aid groups, supporting the work of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, helping out in orphanages, medical clinics and displaced person camps, and providing security during aid distribution conducted by the UN.

But a Chronicle Herald reporter and photographer embedded with the military for the mission observed that they didn’t have much food, water, medical equipment or tents to distribute, beyond what they needed for their own crews.

A spokesman for the prime minister referred the question to Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s office Thursday. MacKay’s spokesman, Dan Dugas, says that the navy reports they did indeed have relief supplies aboard.

"I’ve asked the navy this question and they came back and told me, ‘Halifax returned from sea, took off its Sea King, filled the ship with donations from locals, with tools, with equipment, with a doctor, with medical staff and equipment and water. Athabaskan was full of supplies, also had a doctor and medical supplies.’ "

During the voyage, some sailors wondered if the ships might have been better off staying in port a little longer — say 12 hours — to take on more relief supplies, food aid and medical equipment before sailing for Haiti.
It may have been better to wait a bit, Harris said.

"If the role of the Athabaskan was to bring relief supplies, there’s no point in heading out to sea without the supplies in hand," he said. "There’s easier and faster ways to get personnel to Haiti. So why send a ship down if they don’t have the resources? That seems to be an operational question."

Harper may have been pushing the military to get the ships underway very quickly, said Dosanjh.

"These kinds of decisions aren’t military decisions," he said. "How soon to send something, these are decisions that go up to ministers, and ministers obviously have input or orders from Harper. They knew there was an urgency, and we needed to get people there, but I think they may have been in too much haste, in some instances."

Dugas said the vessels needed to get to Haiti quickly.

"These ships left Halifax as quickly as possible, filled with relief, because of the pressing nature of the need of the people of Haiti," he said. "I would say the government is very proud of the sailors aboard those two ships who worked extremely hard under tight time constraints to get relief supplies underway and there in a timely fashion."

APPENDIX: UN: Ottawa turned down 'strong request' to stay in post-earthquake Haiti

By Andy Blatchford, Globe and Mail, Tue, Jan 11, 2011

LEOGANE, Haiti — The Canadian government turned down a plea to extend its military relief effort in Haiti after last year's earthquake, says a top United Nations official in Port-au-Prince.

Canada was widely praised for rushing to provide emergency help, including clean water, security and medical care, following the devastating temblor last Jan. 12. Armed with heavy equipment, Canadian military engineers also cleared rubble and helped Haitians reopen their roads, particularly in the hard-hit areas around the cities of Leogane and Jacmel. But despite attempts by the UN and local authorities to persuade Ottawa to keep the engineers in Haiti beyond the end of Canada's relief mandate, the military packed up and left.

"I think there was a strong request that they stay on,'' Nigel Fisher, the UN's head of humanitarian aid in Haiti, told The Canadian Press in an interview from Port-au-Prince. "Many felt that they wished they had stayed because they were extremely effective.''

Canada's original mandate was to provide a rapid, short-term response and the UN says there was no obligation to extend the mission. Still, Fisher says, it would have been better if Canada had stuck around longer than a couple of months.

"The good thing is, they were very effective,'' Fisher said. "Could they have stayed longer? Many people felt it would have been great if they had.''

But International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda says that once Leogane and Jacmel had been stabilized, the mission shifted to more of an international effort led by Haiti's government. "I know that Canada's always being requested, wherever it works, to continue with its work,'' Oda said. "If informal requests were made, it's in recognition (of) the great work that the Canadian Forces did in those six weeks.''

Oda noted that some members of Canada's military, which dispatched 2,000 troops to Haiti in the quake's aftermath, are still on the ground. "Canada did stay _ Canada is still there,'' she said.

Federal ministers, including Oda, will be making public appearances this week to highlight the Canadian government's response. On Tuesday, Oda will attend a photo op in Montreal with children adopted from Haiti. Later in the day, she will hold a news conference to tout a federally funded project by Canadian municipalities to help Haitian cities with planning and infrastructure.

Haiti's reconstruction has been a slow process following the quake, which killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. The disaster also killed 58 Canadians. A year later, more than one million people are still crowded in filthy tent camps, which have been infiltrated by a deadly cholera outbreak, thieves and rapists. People in the tent cities say the situation is becoming desperate.

Former governor general Michaelle Jean, now a special envoy to Haiti for a UN organization, said recently that Haitians are frustrated that they've seen few signs of their country's reconstruction. The Haitian-born Jean, who was a visible part of Canada's early relief efforts in Haiti, travels there Wednesday in her first visit since assuming her new role as a UNESCO envoy. Her previous visit, as the Queen's representative last spring, brought her to the two main destinations for Canadian emergency aid: the coastal cities of Jacmel and Leogane.

Leogane remains awash in debris.

Locals here are grateful for the Canadian military's major presence for the first couple of months after the quake. But now that the initial wave of assistance has long since passed, the people say they still need help. "They gave us things to support the population,'' Junie Jasmin, 18, said of work by the Canadian military. "But they didn't stay for very long.''

Jasmin has been living in a tent since the quake. She sells popcorn and hard candy out of a small shack at the edge of a sprawling homeless camp in the heart of Leogane. She says little has improved over the last year and she expresses incredulity when asked what she hopes for next."Hope? Nobody knows,'' Jasmin said.  "We don't know what's coming tomorrow . . . things are very, very tough.''

Leogane, about 35 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince, sits near the epicentre of last year's earthquake. Canadian soldiers carrying medical supplies, potable water and food landed on Leogane's beach about a week after the quake destroyed 90 per cent of the city. At the time, foreign aid had been flowing into Port-au-Prince, while people in rural communities like Leogane feared they had been forgotten.

Leogane's mayor praised Canada for helping the community through the initial crisis with things like medical care and food, but he says Leogane's long-term problems persist. Alexis Santos says Canadians did a lot of heavy lifting in Leogane after the quake, which included clearing rubble from the streets, reinforcing city hall and pulling debris out of the canals. "A lot was done because the city was completely broken _ getting around was impossible,'' he said in an interview.

But a year later, a lot of broken concrete still chokes the city and Santos says it can't been removed with shovels and wheelbarrows. The UN estimates that only half of the debris in Leogane has been cleared.  The vast needs of Leogane's 130,000 citizens are no secret to people who pass the city. "Please Help Us Rebuilded (sic) We Lost Everything,'' reads a roadside billboard that greets visitors as they approach the edge of town.

Canada has committed more than $1 billion to Haiti through its regular foreign development initiatives and in new money promised since the quake. A spokesman for the UN says Canada's exit from Leogane was smooth, as groups from South Korea and Japan moved in to pick up the slack. "But of course every time you lose an engineering contigent or something like that, you're essentially losing a bit of capacity,'' said Michel Bonnardeaux.

"And that's why we'd hoped that they would stay a little bit longer because, given the enormous amount of work that had to be done, any help is welcomed.

"Anything helps, particularly in Haiti where there's very limited capacity to deal with that stuff.''