Haitian orphans were photo-op victims, critics say

Richard J. Brennan Ottawa Bureau

Haitian orphans destined for Quebec, many of them cold and exhausted, were rerouted through Ottawa for what critics say was nothing more than a photo-op for the Harper government.

The Star has learned from government documents obtained through the Access to Information Act that they were originally supposed to go Montreal and to other destinations in Canada after that.

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake on Jan. 12 and many children were left homeless and alone. The government was under a great deal of pressure to speed up existing requests for adoptions by Canadian parents.

“Most are destined to Quebec but some to other regions,” wrote Albert Deschamps, director general, Quebec region of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, on Jan. 21. “The plan is that (they) will most likely arrive at Dorval and final destination flight departing soon after.”

However, when they arrived three days later — many of them carried off the Air Canada flight in blankets and wiping sleep from their eyes —— it was in Ottawa, not Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. Then they were bused to points beyond, including Quebec.

“So the Harper government chose to put them through a two-hour bus ride and photo-op when they totally didn’t need to. They could have done the entire ceremony and stuff obviously at the Trudeau Airport,” Montreal Liberal MP Justin Trudeau,

Surprisingly none of the documents supplied the Star explained why the destination was changed, but Alykhan Velshi, director of communications for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, stated Friday:

“After carefully working out the logistics of such a complex operation, it was determined on Friday Jan. 22 that the Canada Reception Centre (Hangar 11) at Ottawa International Airport was uniquely suited and large enough to help organize the number of children we anticipated on the first flight from Haiti.”

There to greet these new Canadians was Kenney, who had been criticized inside and outside Parliament for not moving quickly enough to fast-track adoptions already in the queue.

NDP MP Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) said there is no doubt in her mind it was deliberately orchestrated by the publicity-addicted Harper Conservatives.

“You want the photo-op, don’t you? I remember Jason Kenney at the airport welcoming them,” Chow said, recalling how several of the orphans were still wearing sandals.

“You could tell even with the blankets they were still very cold. They had these shocked looks on their faces. To subject them to that bus trip and the cold weather was just not fair. It was a photo-op gone bad in my mind,” she said.

Duncan Dee, Air Canada’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer, said the airline asked that the destination be moved to Ottawa after the first flight went to Montreal. It was full of adult Haitian evacuees.

“From a logistical perspective, it was easier for us to handle the flights,” he said.

“We actually identified the (Ottawa) welcome centre early on,” said Dee, adding the airline’s first preference was Toronto “because we have facilities there . . . but because most of these kids were going to Montreal, the easiest most logical place for us was Ottawa.”

Air Canada conducted eight flights to and from Haiti and only that first flight went to Montreal. The others — three or four of them carried orphans — were to Ottawa.

“We made a determination after the first flight that we needed an airport the size of Ottawa to handle this,” he said.

Trudeau, who has a large Haitian community in his Papineau riding, said months later the Harper government appears to have forgotten about Haiti.

“What they have managed not to do for the Haitian community since that initial response in terms of accelerating the (immigration) files and facilitating the process has really, really hurt the Haitian community. They do feel used,” he said.


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