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Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue 6 - Evidence - November 1, 2006


OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 4:00 p.m. to examine and report on the evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon in July2006.

Senator Hugh Segal (Chairman) in the chair.

[Translation]

The Chairman: Welcome to this meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the very first meeting under our new official name. We have the pleasure today of welcoming the Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of Foreign Affairs, as our first witness for this special new study on the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon this past summer. The Minister is accompanied today by Peter Boehm, Assistant Deputy minister, North America (and Consular Affairs), and by Robert Desjardins, Director General, Consular Affairs Bureau for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

[English]

The purpose of this study is to examine the plans that were in place, the strategies developed on the ground and the challenges that were faced, and to identify possible areas for improvement for the next time Canada is faced with such a situation.

We have invited Minister MacKay as our first witness. His department oversaw the evacuation and coordinated the efforts of the officials on the ground in the Middle East and in Canada.

We have asked the minister to comment on the policy aspect of the evacuation. We will then ask officials from various departments to testify on the actual operations of this massive and unexpected enterprise.

I believe that I speak on behalf of the entire committee when, regardless of what may emerge from the study relative to things that went well and things that might have gone better, I express the high regard in which we hold public servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of National Defence and elsewhere who were deployed to the region and worked so hard to accomplish a difficult task. We would like you to convey that message to those people.

[Translation]

You may now make your presentation, Mr. Minister, after which there will be a question period.

Hon. Peter MacKay, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs: It gives me great pleasure to be here with Mr. Boehm and Mr. Desjardins, who played a key role in the success of this remarkable exercise.

[English]

To quote a well-known politician, this truly was one of Canada's finest hours. I commend this committee for undertaking this exercise. You will find that the Public Service of Canada in particular, and the personnel associated with this extraordinary evacuation, distinguished themselves on many levels.

I will begin with a brief chronology. I will then cover the points I wish to make in response to the requests of this committee, and then I will be pleased to take your questions.

At the start of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, I appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development and painted a picture of the difficult and challenging situation that appeared on the ground while our evacuation was ongoing.

Today, further to the efforts of the United Nations Security Council, hostilities have ceased, a degree of stability has been restored in Lebanon and Israel, and it remains to be seen whether the steps undertaken will be enough to eliminate the threat from Hezbollah to establishing lasting security.

That is a pessimist's view. However, I believe that this is, in no small measure, one of the great challenges that continues to exist in that region.

[Translation]

Canadians have been profoundly affected by the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Families have grieved for the loss of life. All have lamented the terrible suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire. Canadians who are back in Canada appreciated the assistance of their government in bringing them back to safety.

I would like, once again, to extend my deepest condolences to the families of the victims, including the Al-Akhras family. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the family of Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedner and Lieutenant Tom Farkash, both of whom died in the line of duty.

[English]

I am grateful for the advice, the active interest and the attention of my parliamentary colleagues on this particular issue. My appearance before this committee affords an invaluable opportunity to detail the government's extensive efforts to protect Canadians; to take stock of the lessons learned from our evacuation operation; to respond to humanitarian, recovery and stabilization needs in Lebanon; and to promote peace and security in the Middle East.

I would first like to speak about protecting Canadians. The safety and security of Canadians is of the utmost concern of this and any government. Put simply, there is no higher priority.

For this reason, extensive efforts were undertaken to meet the urgent needs of all Canadians seeking to flee from the deteriorating security situation in Lebanon. These efforts involved putting in place mechanisms and capabilities to assist an estimated 40,000 Canadians.

The evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon is by far the largest and most successful effort ever mounted or attempted in our country's history. To put this into context, 500 Canadians were evacuated from Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami; 200 Canadians were evacuated from Cote d'Ivoire when a crisis erupted in West Africa in 2005; and even fewer were evacuated from the Cayman Islands and Haiti in the midst of storms there in 2004.

The evacuation from Lebanon represents an initiative several times larger in scale and scope than these prior four operations combined. It was conducted without access to the same resources as other countries, such as the military assets — vessels that the United States, the United Kingdom and France had in that region, for example, which were able to deploy readily to assist in evacuation efforts.

It is also important to note that the evacuation needed to be conducted by sea, as the Beirut airport had been damaged early on and was not usable almost immediately after the conflict began. Keep in mind, as well, the sheer distance; this happened half a world away.

A series of interrelated factors compounded the considerable challenges to this huge operation. They included: the Israeli air and sea blockade, while land route infrastructure had been seriously damaged or destroyed; the deterioration of communications networks in Lebanon; the serious capacity shortages of Lebanon's port infrastructure; high international demand for the limited commercial maritime and airlift capabilities capable for immediate use; and the distance, as I said, between Canada and Lebanon.

The relatively small size of our embassy in Beirut was also a factor. There were nine Canada-based staff in Beirut at the time of the conflict, in contrast to the large resident Canadian community — one of the largest of any Western country in Lebanon. There was no Canadian embassy in Cyprus, and only an honorary consul in Mersin and Adana, which is halfway across Turkey and far from Ankara, where our embassy is located.

Moreover, at same time as Canadian officials exerted maximum effort to coordinate a massive operation, the security environment was rapidly evolving and deteriorating. Parts of Beirut, southern Lebanon and northern Israel were quickly becoming what could only be described as a war zone.

In this context, Canadian officials inside Lebanon and Israel, and Canadian missions across the Middle East, as well as elsewhere around the world and here in Ottawa, were quickly mobilized to respond. They did so to render assistance to fellow citizens. I would describe it as doing so in heroic fashion.

The Prime Minister diverted his own airplane as he returned from a summit to transport Canadians who had been evacuated. I was pleased to be there with officials to greet that flight in the middle of the night as they arrived here in Ottawa. I recall the expressions of thanks and their joy at being home from our fellow citizens as they disembarked from the plane.

The following brief chronology of efforts serves as a useful outline of the actions undertaken and issues that were involved, logistical and otherwise.

On July12, Hezbollah attacked Israel and kidnapped two soldiers in a cross-border raid. Soldiers were killed at that time and injured. Israel responded by launching air, ground and naval offences.

Less than 24 hours later, on July13, a travel warning for Lebanon was issued by Canada. On July15, three messages were sent to all registered Canadians, as well as being posted on the Internet, to apprise Canadians of the evolving situation and dangers on the ground, and to advise them that the Canadian government was looking at departure options.

This activity was within two days.

The first interdepartmental task force was convened on July14, involving departments from across government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canadian International Development Agency, Department of National Defence, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Canada Border Services Agency.

At that time, repeated messages to Canadians were already being conveyed through multiple channels, both in Beirut as well as back home in Canada. By that, I mean that there were Internet contacts, telephone contacts and even a system involving what we called wardens, messengers or runners who went to homes that we knew housed Canadians.

On July15, the DFAIT emergency operations centre expanded to create a crisis call centre. It took over all the calls and emails related to the crisis, including those directed to our embassy in Beirut. We were receiving calls from inside Lebanon here in Ottawa.

By July16, an evacuation plan had been developed, maritime and air transportation assets were contracted, safe- haven and evacuee reception centres were identified in both Cyprus and Turkey and personnel for deployments to assist in this evacuation process were prepared for departure on July17. At this point, the policy of asking evacuees to pay for the cost of their transport and absorb further costs related to onward travel was reviewed.

At that time, we knew it would be expensive, but we concluded that levying no charge would only be fair if we could evacuate all Canadians. That is to say, Canadians would not be expected to pick up costs and choose whether they could be taken out of harm's way based on their ability to pay. Our job was to protect all Canadians and we did so.

I would like to point out that none of the countries that carried out the evacuation operations in Lebanon charged their citizens.

On July17, the embassy in Beirut activated its consular warden network and began to contact individual Canadians by phone to inform them of the evacuation plan. Wardens were volunteers living in various parts of the country that had been identified as contact persons for contingency purposes, such as an evacuation. By this time, the number of registered Canadians had doubled from 11,000 to 22,000.

Subsequent calls to Canadians were handled by the DFAIT emergency and crisis centre here in Ottawa to ensure timely, accurate and consistent messaging to the potential evacuees.

Both the Prime Minister and I were actively engaged throughout these initial stages, including the direct consultations with our Israeli counterparts to ensure safe passage of Canadians being evacuated from Lebanon.

Initial evacuation of Canadians began on July19. Over the course of the next month, 14,982 evacuees were moved to safety without any loss of life or serious injury.

The following statistics demonstrate the sheer magnitude of this operation. DFAIT's emergency and crisis call centre used 215trained volunteers to handle close to 48,000 phone calls and 13,000 emails, representing contact with approximately 35,000Canadians.

To support the evacuation, approximately 400 government officials were either redeployed from Ottawa or reassigned from abroad to sites in Cyprus, Beirut and Turkey. This group included 200 from Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 151 from the Department of National Defence, two from Transport Canada, 34 from Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Services Agency and eight from CSIS.

This deployment was carried out during a period of assignment rotations and vacations. I point out that a large number of our public servants in those various departments gave willingly of themselves. Some came back from vacation, some volunteered, some spent many hours at either the crisis centre or in making the decision to be deployed to one of these locations: they really went above and beyond the call of duty.

It required a large number of officials leaving Ottawa and flying to the region with only a few hours' notice. People were working around the clock in locations — in many cases, without the infrastructure, assets and security of a Canadian embassy to support them.

In addition to the 34 departures by ship from Beirut, we also conducted an evacuation operation to bring people out of the port of Tyre, which is in the south of Lebanon. This was an extremely dangerous and carefully planned operation.

Sixty-six chartered flights brought evacuees back to Canada with the close cooperation of provincial authorities, particularly here in Ontario and Quebec, who mobilized to receive the evacuees and provide for their immediate needs.

Taking stock, we would like to put forward the lessons we have learned from this evacuation. Overall, suffice it to say that these circumstances were difficult and unexpected. The Canadian response to the protection and assistance of Canadians trapped in a conflict zone was timely, effective and a true success story for which all Canadians can be proud.

[Translation]

Our ability to successfully respond to a large-scale crisis has been proven in the Lebanese evacuation operation. That being said, we need to learn from our experience in Lebanon and remain vigilant and prepared. It is agreed by all involved that lessons can be drawn from this crisis and all government departments are on track to finalize their individual lessons learned exercise.

[English]

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade chaired the first interdepartmental meeting on lessons learned, September8 of this year. We have had the opportunity to look ahead, and develop and implement policies and procedures to improve our efficiency and effectiveness based on the experience.

Some of the easily identifiable measures are as follows: obtain mobile and secure technology for rapid deployment teams, recognizing that crises can occur in distant and remote locations; review all aspects of Government of Canada policy on assistance to Canadians abroad, particularly in crisis situations; ensure that appropriate financial and contracting authorities are in place to enable and support rapid planning and decision-making to respond to the crisis; improve upon public communications, methods and techniques to prove and provide timely and effective information dissemination of pertinent information on the Government of Canada's response during the crisis.

Finally, I would like to speak to responding to humanitarian recovery and stabilization needs in Lebanon. From the outset of these hostilities, Canada expressed deep concern regarding civilian casualties, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the growing number of internally displaced persons.

At the height of the crisis, Canada joined with our G8 partners in St.Petersburg and Rome to call for an urgent effort to address the humanitarian impact of the crisis, as well as to urge Israel to exert utmost restraint and seek to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure at all costs.

We stressed that the responsibility for the protection of citizens and humanitarian workers was an obligation that must be respected fully under international humanitarian law.

We strongly advocated for the safe and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to deliver immediate humanitarian relief to the Lebanese for use of our ships to facilitate the transportation of over 140 tonnes of humanitarian supplies from Cyprus.

We also made available a helicopter for the UN to conduct an aerial survey of the coastal areas affected by the oil spills.

[Translation]

Canada's response was timely, targeted and effective. We provided $5.5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to respond to pressing humanitarian needs.

Canada's support helped humanitarian agencies repair broken water systems and damaged schools as well as trucking in medicines, food, water and temporary shelter and other essential supplies to the local communities in need in southern Lebanon.

[English]

UN humanitarian agencies have wrapped up their emergency operations now in Lebanon and are moving on to the recovery and reconstruction phase.

In this regard, on August 16, the Prime Minister announced the creation of a two-year $25 million Lebanon relief fund. This fund confirms the Government of Canada's commitment to international aid to help rebuild Lebanon, and it demonstrates Canada's support for the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.

A DFAIT-led interdepartmental assessment mission to Lebanon between October1 and October7 identified potential areas of focus for DFAIT to assist international stabilization efforts. These areas include border monitoring, police training and mine action, especially dealing with the problem of unexploded cluster munitions.

I met recently on that point, Mr. Chair, with Canadian representatives who have been active on this file. The Ottawa accord that was signed and is approaching its 10-year anniversary is another point of pride for Canadians.

Finally, with respect to promoting peace and security in the Middle East, which is a broader question of great interest and concern, Canada's objectives parallel those of the international community. The full and rapid implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which I have mentioned, brought an end to the hostilities and aims at addressing several of the conditions that have led to this conflict.

Resolution 1701 mandated the creation of a robust United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, consisting of up to 15,000 troops to maintain the cease-fire; the deployment of over 15,000 members of the Lebanese Armed Forces into the south of Lebanon to extend the control of the whole of government over all Lebanese territory; the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon; an arms embargo; the dismantling of Hezbollah; and the release of two Israeli soldiers.

Only these measures can lay the basis for a secure Israel and Lebanon, and lead to a lasting peace in that region.

[Translation]

Alongside our allies and partners, we continue to call on all regional actors to contribute constructively to the implementation of resolution 1701. In particular, we have urged those with influence over Hezbollah and their backers in Tehran and Damascus to persuade them to heed the international community's appeals and to respect the arms embargo. In addition, Canada continues to support Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora in his efforts to implement Resolution 1701 and extend Lebanese sovereignty over the south of the country.

[English]

Neither the Lebanese nor the Israeli people should be held hostage to the extremist actions of an organization designated by many nations, including Canada, as a terrorist group. Hezbollah and its supporters should respect the desire of ordinary Lebanese and Israeli people to lead normal and secure lives.

Any lasting solution to Middle East tensions must be regional. Renewed diplomatic efforts must be made to promote and realize the vision of a two-state solution and secure a prosperous Israel living side by side with a viable, democratic and peaceful Palestinian state.

A broad and real regional peace is needed to bring dignity and sustainable security to this region, and Canada will continue to be a partner for those who share in this vision.

[Translation]

I would be pleased to respond to your questions.

[English]

The Chairman: I will ask honourable senators to keep their questions as brief as possible so that as many senators as possible have a chance to ask questions of the minister.

Senator Corbin: I have a point of clarification. On page 3, fourth paragraphfrom the bottom, the last word of the paragraphas printed in the text given to us by the department is "reviewed," but I distinctly understood you to say "renewed." Is that a correction or a misreading on your part?

Mr. MacKay: I would say reviewed and renewed, if that helps.

Senator Corbin: You did say "renewed."

Mr. MacKay: I meant to say "reviewed."

[Translation]

Senator Dawson: Mr.Minister, first of all, just so we understand each other, the objective of the committee is to help you. We would like to know whether, in the wake of the lessons learned between the tsunami a while ago and Lebanon, the Department of Foreign Affairs can measure its ability to establish a rapid deployment team, and whether, in the two or three days following the start of the evacuation, there seemed to be some confusion in the department.

I would like to comment on one of your colleagues, who attacked the credibility of the ambassador by saying that he had been appointed by the Liberals. This certainly did not improve his credibility in carrying out his duties.

That being said, we have a number of questions concerning the figures. First of all, at what point did the most recent study take place on the number of Canadians in Lebanon who could potentially have been evacuated? We saw in the newspapers this morning that there was an estimate of the cost of the operation. We will have the opportunity, over the next few weeks. of meeting other witnesses and going into a bit more detail on the evacuation itself, but we would like to have information on more simple questions, such as the number of Canadian citizens and the cost of such an operation, as well as the issue of the rapid response team which we should create. I will confine myself to that for the moment.

Mr. MacKay: First of all, there was no confusion among those working for the department. The response was immediate, contrary to what was reported by the media. The response was appropriate and very fast.

[English]

I point to the results, senator, as the proof in the pudding. There was no file folder sitting in an antiquated filing cabinet somewhere in the Pearson building that outlined the evacuation plan of 15,000 Canadians from Lebanon. It did not exist. This response was remarkable, under the circumstances.

As to the estimated number of Canadians with passports inside Lebanon, there was no accurate number that we were able to predict. We have since determined, and were able to determine then, in fact, that the number was somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people. Not everyone who returned to Lebanon or currently holds a passport registers with the embassy, so that lack of information put us at a distinct advantage. Within days, however, we were able to contact members of the community who, in turn, contacted other Canadians they knew there. We put out a call in Canada as well that helped us determine these numbers.

As for commentary of our ambassador in Beirut, he performed exceptionally under the circumstances. No criticisms were levelled at him that were valid, and that were in any way a reflection of any disrespect held by members of the government, certainly the least of all myself. I have nothing but the highest respect for our ambassador and the work that he has done. I have since expressed that to him, as I did throughout this exercise, when we spoke daily on the phone.

The criticisms that came early, I think, quickly gave way to the realization that this exercise was exceptional and would require a tremendous Herculean effort on the part of the Public Service and across the board of the various departments that I mentioned. There has since been a study of the numbers, figures and facts, some of which I provided.

The costs to date that have been calculated are in the range of $66 million, but these figures are not complete. There are bills that have yet to be calculated into that final number. I am talking now solely of my department. Other costs will be calculated as a result of some of the other government groups I mentioned: DND, most notably, and CIDA. These costs include, as you would expect, the bulk of costs associated with air and sea transportation and the transportation of public servants to the various locations to assist in the evacuation. There is the cost of rental vehicles, health and welfare services, telecommunications, equipment that was needed, and Passport Canada expenses. All of these costs, I can assure you, are totally accounted for. They are transparent. They will be available on the website and will hold up to public scrutiny.

Mainly, what cost can we put on the evacuation of Canadians from harm's way in a war zone in what, again, can only be described as a remarkable exercise where there was not a single loss of life or injury as a result of this effort?

Senator Dawson: We are here to find ways in which we can help you make recommendations on improving this. How often are audits done on the number of Canadians in a country in a crisis situation? How many of the 15,000 went back, according to your office?

Mr. MacKay: I have heard only anecdotally that approximately 50percent of that number has returned. Again, this information is anecdotal. The evacuees are under no obligation to tell us what their plans were upon arrival back in Canada. We have not demanded that they tell us of their whereabouts.

As far a survey being done, we generally try to keep track of the number of Canadians in various countries. When a crisis hits, as it did in this particular situation, and the situation evolved quickly, we were more concerned about locating Canadians and giving them the proper information about how to proceed to the port of Beirut for evacuation than we were in taking any kind of a census, if I can put it that way.

In the future, I think for areas that could be described as hot spots, we should try to improve the accuracy of locating Canadians in those zones and we are looking at ways in which to do that.

Senator Andreychuk: Mr.Minister, from you to the Department of Foreign Affairs and certainly all other departments and individuals, both Canadians and non-Canadians who assisted in the evacuation, I think the work was phenomenal. Having been inside the system, I understand what heroic efforts they went through personally to accomplish the evacuation on our behalf.

If I am restricted in time, I want to come back on a second round to political and humanitarian issues.

It is always a fine balance between a person's responsibility for their own behaviour and government's responsibility for the safety and security. There is always an issue.

After the death of Prime Minister Hariri, I think Lebanon changed dynamically. While no one could anticipate the actual conflict that broke out, it was a difficult situation.

If we are to learn lessons, I think one lesson is how to anticipate this kind of situation. How do citizens find the alerts and respond to them? I recall 30 years ago when Canadians came in conflict with the law and drug use, there was a dramatic shift in the government in acknowledging through pamphlets, radio and television that if one travelled abroad, Canadian laws did not apply. It was stated that the traveller was subject to the local laws, and the limitations of the Canadian government were indicated.

The limitations were clearly laid out.

Is it time to re-look at how we approach movement around the world? Most Canadians are somewhere. Do we put some of the responsibility on those who go into conflict areas, by requiring them to register? There are some people who registered with the embassy and advised of their whereabouts, and therefore registering helps the Canadian government to assist them. Others chose not to go there. Do they have equal service at the same time? How do we approach that? How do we identify citizens who have the right of movement? Where do we draw the line? It seems to me the lessons learned should be both. What obligations rest on the citizen and what obligations rest on the government? Are you approaching the lessons learned from that point of view as well? In other words, maybe we need to stop providing alerts. There is an alert out for a portion of Mexico. We did not have those alerts years ago. We developed those. Is it time to develop different alerts for Canadians and the evacuation?

Mr. MacKay: I think it is fair to say that the Department of Foreign Affairs has evolved with the technology available.

With the advent of the Internet and its now widespread use to relay information broadly in all languages in Canada as well as in countries of origin, those postings and travel advisories are one of the most direct and effective ways to communicate the dangers of choosing certain locations for travel or business.

Can we communicate in other ways? Possibly we can. Direct advertising in certain publications, I suppose, would be an option at times of heightened danger, at times of heightened storm warnings, for example, or anything that would put a person in jeopardy as a result of even political instability, as we have seen in some countries. We constantly look at ways to communicate this information to Canadians.

To acknowledge the important point you make, while Canadians enjoy certain rights and protections here in Canada, those rights and protections cannot be extended to the same degree when they leave Canada. That is to say, one does not take those rights with them.

On the point of the responsibilities one assumes for their own decisions as to where to travel, where to take the family and where to do business, we will continue to protect and assist Canadian citizens abroad as a government — any government — to the greatest degree possible.

For this committee's information, somewhere in the range of two million Canadians currently live outside Canada and have Canadian passports. That number creates certain challenges that the government must address.

Clearly, we want to send a message that there is a certain responsibility on the part of Canadian citizens. For example, we ask citizens living in a country where there is a travel advisory to be in contact by at least providing their whereabouts and contact information to the local embassy or consul or by providing for timely contact and evacuation, if necessary.

It was of great assistance to at least have a starting point early on to identify and contact certain individuals, as was the case in Lebanon. As we saw, the numbers increased exponentially in a relatively short period of time as Canada was to undertake the evacuation.

The means of communication in some countries is obviously better than in others, as one would expect. There are greater challenges, for example, in certain African countries simply as a result of the lack of infrastructure and the ability for the Canadian government to have the same degree of reach into certain parts of the country based on our military capacity.

As an example, in one day during the evacuation process this summer, an American aircraft carrier and a British aircraft carrier were able to remove thousands of people at one time in a single day. I remember our government at one point talking about the possibility of expanding our navy to include a form of aircraft carrier, and being mocked and ridiculed for even suggesting such a thing would be part of the Canadian navy.

These policy decisions must be made. There are limitations when it comes to our current capacity and our reach into certain regions, but we constantly make efforts to improve those contacts, resources and investments to assist Canadians when and where we can.

Senator Smith: Thank you for appearing. I too think this operation was huge and impressive, and I applaud all Canadians who took part in it. Like most Canadians, I watched closely on television. My daughter spent the summer in the Greek islands and moved on to Turkey in the middle of the summer, which prompted me to watch more closely.

I remember one particular incident when a large boat had been chartered, I think, from Tyre. I am not being critical here, but I think only about 20percent of the boat was occupied, and a small percentage of those occupants were Canadians.

In the lessons learned department, I am thinking not only of cost efficiency, but also the management where we can work with NATO allies and G8 partners to maximize the opportunities to work together for reasons of efficiency.

Have we talked to those other countries to try to reach agreements and understandings that things click right in when something like this situation happens, and that the advantages of accomplishing it that way are maximized?

Mr. MacKay: You obviously followed this situation closely because a boat went into Tyre and we expected a significant number of Canadians would be on board. As it turned out, we took out more Americans, French citizens and Australians than our own citizens.

To answer your question directly, from the outset we were in regular contact with our NATO allies and with European Union allies, constantly looking for ways to share capacity. The timing of the arrival and the coordinating effort undertaken by Peter Boehm and Robert Desjardins was incredible in terms of precision.

Keep in mind that we were working with a curfew in a blockade, so we needed to get the ships in Beirut harbour at certain times, get them loaded and get them out before the curfew was put back in place. There were several occasions when I had to pick up the phone, call the Israeli foreign minister and ask that we be given an extension, or consider the possibility of allowing a boat to come in ahead of another boat.

The short answer is, there was a lot of coordinated effort because boats were lined up at the perimeter to beat the curfew, and sometimes we had to trade places. I reiterate that early on particularly, we were competing for the use of these commercial vessels with other countries.

There was ongoing discussion from start to finish with many NATO allies directly and with the Secretary-General himself. It was a collaborative and co-operative effort when it came to NATO.

Senator Corbin: I want to take you back to the paragraphon page 3 that I alluded to earlier, in which you state that on July17, the policy of asking evacuees to pay for the costs of their transport and absorb further costs related to onward travel was reviewed. What was the outcome of that review?

Mr. MacKay: The decision was made that we would not charge anyone for their return to Canada.

Senator Corbin: Did you ask for refunds of costs later on?

Mr. MacKay: No.

Senator Corbin: Have you done so in previous circumstances?

Mr. MacKay: No.

Peter Boehm, Assistant Deputy Minister, North America (and Consular Affairs), Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada: In standard consular procedure, if a service is requested, there is an undertaking to repay, which is signed by the person. Once they are back in Canada, we try to collect on that amount.

The magnitude of this operation suggested it would be impossible to work that particular procedure. Other countries took similar decisions.

In the case of the United States, they had signalled early on that they would require their citizens to repay. Then they rescinded that decision. The decision was taken by the minister early on that this repayment would not apply in this case.

Senator Corbin: Have individuals come forward and voluntarily repaid costs?

Mr. Boehm: Not to my knowledge.

Mr. MacKay: I should add that the costs were in two stages — the removal from Beirut to a port either in Cyprus or in Mersin, Turkey, and then the air freight home. While Mr.Boehm is correct in suggesting that other countries, to our knowledge, have not charged for the return, many citizens from other countries were removed only in that first phase. That is to say, they were only taken as far as the safest port.

In a large number of cases, citizens from other countries were not returned all the way home. Canada took a generous approach in returning Canadians to home soil.

Senator Corbin: The other brief issue I would like to raise is on page 1 of the statement under the heading "Protecting Canadians." I am curious to know why, in the second paragraphwhere it says "the needs of all Canadians," that "all" is underlined. What is the significance of that? That is the only word in the whole text that is underlined.

Mr. MacKay: We made the decision to bring home any Canadian who expressed the desire to leave. Because of the conditions that existed inside Lebanon, we would bring them back to Canada; and I gave that undertaking early on in this crisis.

Senator Corbin: What do you mean by all Canadians?

Mr. MacKay: All Canadian passport holders.

Senator Corbin: Is that regardless of whether they were visiting, residing or otherwise happened to be in Lebanon at the time?

Mr. MacKay: That is correct.

Senator Corbin: Will that policy be reviewed down the road?

Mr. MacKay: We wanted to send an indication that we will assist all Canadians to the greatest extent possible. In this particular circumstance, any Canadian who expressed a desire to receive assistance from the Government of Canada to return was given that assistance. Clearly, we felt that undertaking and responsibility was necessary, given the dire circumstances that were ongoing during this conflict inside Lebanon.

Senator Corbin: I understand the humanitarian concern and I share that entirely, but passports are sometimes like ships of convenience. Double citizenship, it seems to me, imposes an extra burden or charge on the national government for Canadians definitely residing abroad.

I would like that point addressed when I ask: Will that policy, at some time, be reviewed in view of the heavy load that you had to deal with this time? Granted, these were extraordinary circumstances, but the circumstances will not always be extraordinary. Some discrimination will need to be exercised. As you so well stated, in this case, there is no question of discriminating.

I, for one, would like to know what the current policy is, and if that policy will be looked at in view of the heavy burden foisted on you — and on bona fide Canadians.

Mr. MacKay: I think the question is relevant and one that there will be, I dare say, a lot of discussion about. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration, I suspect, will be tasked with this question in the final analysis.

The policy, currently, is one that is the continuation of the previous government. That is to say, dual citizenship will remain, and it will entitle a person to the same rights, privileges and responsibilities that come with a passport and citizenship.

Having said that, much of the discussion, including around this table, I suspect, throughout your deliberations, will be: Should there be different obligations when it comes to dual citizenship? Should a person who has lived outside the country for — pick a period of time — and is no longer a property holder or a taxpayer in this country be entitled, and should they have the same expectations that come with the citizenship that exists when you live in Canada?

These questions, in the broader context, require us to drill down a little deeper and examine what other countries are doing. Some countries, for example, require dual citizens to live for a specified period of time in a country, to own property, to pay perhaps a diminished level of tax or to pay perhaps a specified amount for living outside the country.

Those discussions have taken place and will take place within the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. I welcome your input and this committee's advice on the subject.

The Chairman: I ask the remaining senators on the list to put their questions and then we will ask the minister to respond to all of them so we have ample time, and perhaps, time for a second round. I know there is a risk of a vote in the other place, which may deprive us of the minister's company.

Mr. MacKay: I am willing to stay until those bells ring.

Senator DiNino: Mr.Minister, I want to join with my colleagues in extending congratulations, and particular praise to all those people who were involved in this extraordinary exercise. I am proud to be a Canadian when I look at how we were able to deal with a difficult issue.

I have three quick questions. First, did you get full cooperation from all the local governments in your attempt to expedite the removal of Canadians from Lebanon, from the area of conflict? Second, you talked about cooperating with provinces, and I think you mentioned Quebec and Ontario particularly. I am most interested to know when the evacuees returned home whether the families of these evacuees played a role? Did we engage with them? Were they part of the solution?

Finally, where is United Nations Security Council Resolution1701 at?

Mr. MacKay: The short answer to your first question, with respect to the level of cooperation from local governments, was that yes, they were extraordinarily cooperative. Being in touch with the Lebanese authorities and the Israelis, as I mentioned, there were a number of occasions specifically where I or officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs were called upon to intervene directly to expedite the evacuation to alleviate some of the difficulties around the blockade. The movement of Canadian citizens in the south, where the bombing was most intense, required a number of interventions, and it went beyond that.

Intervention went beyond the authorities in Lebanon and Israel. We were in contact with the government of Cyprus and the government of Turkey, both of whom were remarkably cooperative in welcoming Canadian citizens to their countries. Many of these citizens, as you would expect, were stressed, tired and traumatized by what had taken place. Governments worked with our officials in both Cyprus and Turkey to provide thoroughfare and processing, as Canadian citizens landed there and then were transported to planes to return to Canada.

It was a remarkable welcome to Canada. I suggest it is indicative of how the vast majority of countries in the international global community view Canada. They were extremely cooperative, helpful and gracious in their efforts to help us in this exercise. I have expressed that to representatives from all those countries and hope to do so in a more personal way in the future in travelling there.

The families, as well, here in Canada and the families who we were in contact with inside those regions, were similarly grateful for the efforts that were made. They recognized that this intervention was made to assist them on a humanitarian level, to move them out of harm's way as quickly as possible and to do efficiently and safely what they were unable to do themselves for their families.

The biggest challenge, of course, was the disabling of the Beirut airport, which would have been the normal and most direct evacuation route. The evacuation required a lot of ingenuity. I credit these two gentlemen and the officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs for the speed and agility in which they identified these routes of evacuation.

The families in Canada were in regular contact with officials. We set up a phone bank that was almost equivalent to a call centre. We dedicated an entire floor at the Pearson building to take calls both from Canada and Lebanon, to connect people in some cases. Information was provided in Canada to locate family members inside the country.

Similarly, in many cases, messages were passed along to family members in Canada to assure people were safe, were on the boat and were on their way home.

You can imagine the number of people it took to field these thousands and thousands of calls that continued throughout the weeks of evacuation and the personal effort, sacrifice and commitment made by these officials who invested heavily in this exercise.

To that extent, we utilized all the human resources we had here. The Red Cross was involved, as well as municipal authorities here in Ottawa and throughout Ontario. You mentioned the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario. They were both cooperative, particularly upon arrival, to help greet people to the country and see that they were able to return to their homes, family members and loved ones. The Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness also pitched in with coordinating the activities upon the return of the evacuees.

The exercise was cross-government, but it also touched on those other levels of government that you mentioned, as well as on those levels inside the various international partners who assisted in the exercise.

Resolution 1701 is holding, but fragile. We have seen the deployment of troops both from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, and I think most notably and importantly, the Lebanese army itself. I do not know the numbers that have been deployed, but they are significant into the southern region.

Do I personally still have concerns about the presence and the future of Hezbollah and their activities? I certainly do have concerns and much speculation about the continued importation of arms from Syria, and Syria acting as a proxy for Iran. This situation is worrisome. It is troublesome from the point of view of Lebanon being able truly to exert its sovereignty over the entire country.

The tragedy, coming back to an earlier question, is that Lebanon, and most notably Beirut, were well on their way to becoming a stable, vibrant and economically vibrant country and city. Beirut was one of the key destination points throughout the region. This tragic crisis has set them back significantly.

That is why Canada has committed, as have others, to help with the reconstruction and to help move Lebanon in the direction they were headed, to a stable, democratic and prosperous country.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you for appearing. I want to commend your department. I believe you head a department that is compassionate and caring. I am a recipient of evacuation services, not from Lebanon, but from another country.

In Uganda, we were not even citizens when your department over 30 years ago evacuated us from prisons and hospitals. We celebrate with the members of your department, Mr.Malloy and others, our significant days since we have been here. I am a firsthand recipient. In visiting countries, I know the extent of this warden system you have in unstable countries.

As I watched what was going on in Lebanon from afar and there was a perception in the community I want to share. Perhaps we can look at this perception as lessons learned for the benefit of next time.

There was a perception that there was hesitation on the government's side, by not moving quicker. There was a perception that perhaps the evacuation could have taken place earlier.

You may not be able to answer my question, but I would appreciate if there was a way to communicate to communities the reason it took seven or eight days before Canada started the evacuation.

Mr. MacKay: The short answer is that we were not able to evacuate until we secured the assets. Until we had boats that were able to enter the harbour physically and provide that safe passage, there was a challenge ensuring we had the necessary assets and the entire chain of passage set up that included the air return. We could not evacuate those numbers to a location in either Cyprus or Mersin in Turkey and simply leave them there.

There was also the sheer challenge of contacting individually the numbers of Canadians, and then on a daily basis tracking the capacity of each boat and plane as the evacuation proceeded.

With regard to your question about the communication aspect, I harken back to our initial response. First, we gauged the numbers and the degree to which we could facilitate this evacuation through the port of Beirut. Essentially, we ensured we did not give out inaccurate information. That was one of our early concerns as well. We wanted to ensure we would not have a flood of people, for example, arrive in Beirut at the embassy until we had sufficient personnel, assets for the evacuation and safe passage all the way back to Canada.

For that type of planning and coordination, I cannot help but heap praise upon the officials. Both Mr.Boehm and Mr.Desjardins were directly involved in this effort. People were working around the clock, 24 hours a day.

I appreciate what you have said about your personal experience. I received numerous calls after the fact from family members and from other members of Parliament who were assisting in their communities with an evacuee who perhaps had a family member in their riding.

People were on the phones and around the table. We had meetings twice a day where we would be on the phone to the embassies in the three countries involved. It was a massive operation that came together like a unit right away. People took charge of their various responsibilities. People from the various departments in government sat around the table every day with maps on the wall discussing the numbers and calculating which transportation links were in place. Keep in mind as well this was several time zones away, so people worked around the clock.

I remember going down to the operations room at 2 o`clock or 3 o'clock in the morning, and people were there on the phone and online, providing information as it evolved.

I do not want to prolong the answer other than to say that the early part of this exercise was setting up these various prongs of efficiency that were required before we started communicating anything that would lead perhaps to misinformation.

If there was a lesson learned, it would be that we should have provided at least some assurances that the plan was evolving in a more timely fashion.

Senator Jaffer: This story is still evolving. There are still amounts outstanding and there are a lot of questions about dual citizenship.

Once you have the complete picture, I would appreciate finding out from you the total cost of this operation, as well as any additional information of what has happened to the people. That information would be a useful part of our study.

[Translation]

Senator DeBané: Mr. Minister, I would like to thank you and your department for the extraordinary work carried out during the crisis. I would especially like to thank the department's staff in Beirut, headed by Louis de Lorimier, whose work was absolutely remarkable, given the scope of the crisis.

[English]

I have two questions, Mr. Minister. As you know, there was a time when our embassy in Beirut and our embassy in Egypt were the two most important embassies that we had in the Arab world. Today, the status of that embassy is among the lowest we have abroad despite the fact, as you said, that no Western country has as large a community in Lebanon as we do, and despite the size of the Lebanese community in this country.

Our embassy in Damascus is among the 10 most important in the world — almost 100 people. Yet, again, the status of the one in Beirut is the lowest that one can think of, having gone from being the most important, together with the one in Cairo.

We all know the history of what happened over the years and why it happened. However, I think it is time to give that embassy the same full-fledged status as other embassies that we have abroad, so Lebanese people do not need to go to Damascus for their immigration or other requirements. It is time that we look at that situation and correct it.

The other representation I want to make to you is this. I find it troublesome, in view of the special relations that our country has with Israel, that despite all the representations of your officials, you personally had to intervene for 10 additional minutes for a boat, or to obtain this or that from Israel, even though Israel could not have a better friend than Canada. I hope that you will tell that country, with whom we have special relations, that if they made the rescue operation more difficult because of conditions and restrictions that hampered our operations, this is not the way to operate with a country like Canada that has stood up for Israel.

Those are my two points.

[Translation]

Mr. MacKay: First of all, you are right with regard to the staff in some embassies. My department is now reviewing these issues.

[English]

It is always necessary, with changing relationships and circumstances, to review the staffing complement and the priority that we place in certain relationships between Canada and our global partners.

We are in the process of deciding where we need a greater presence, and where we need more personnel and resources. As you would expect, that is an ongoing exercise undertaken by any government at any time. Do we need to expand into other regions? Is the current complement sufficient or is it perhaps too much? You mentioned 100 staff in our Damascus embassy. I am not sure of those numbers. I will look into it.

Senator DeBané: It is between 90 and 100.

Mr. MacKay: I will take you at your word on that.

As far as the relationship with Israel and their level of cooperation, I do not want to leave anyone here with the impression that they were anything but cooperative. The security situation was such that Israel had imposed a strict curfew as part of the blockade. However, whenever we made those calls, whenever we made interventions, they were extremely cooperative and willing to make that window of time available to us.

Subsequent to that cooperation, I have had conversations with the foreign minister. I have expressed our appreciation for the way in which they were always ready and willing to take our calls, but they were engaged in a blockade of the Port of Beirut. We were competing with other ships that were getting into the harbour at the same time. On occasion, because of those tight turnaround times with the ships coming in and out, it took an intervention on our part, but there was never really a problem. There was never a refusal.

Finally, in response to your referencing of the ambassadors who did that work — Ambassador Brodeur in Turkey, Ambassador de Lorimier in Beirut and Ambassador Beliveau in Cyprus — in my view, they should receive the Order of Canada for what they did. I have never said that before in public. The exercise that they undertook on behalf of all Canadians was truly remarkable.

Senator DeBané: I fully agree with you, Minister MacKay.

Senator Downe: You were operating in a difficult situation, trying to get 40,000 Canadians out of a war zone. I assume not all Canadians had all their documentation. Some documentation would have been lost, misplaced or maybe destroyed when buildings were destroyed. How many people were stopped by CSIS?

Mr. MacKay: I cannot give you those figures. I probably would not, if I had them. I can tell you that the process of checking passports and citizenship was rigorous. CSIS was obviously a participant in this evacuation, as were, more notably, officials from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

There was a modicum of common sense — with children, for example. We prioritized in terms of who boarded the ship first. Those who were elderly, infirm, with children, with family members, some of whom did not have full citizenship, to be frank with you, they were given priority. We did not break up or separate families in the process of this evacuation.

However, it was done professionally, it was done with security in mind and at the forefront of this exercise, it was done in a compassionate way that took into account the challenge of people travelling with children.

Some of the images that were portrayed early on in this evacuation, which left a lasting impression on me and many others, did not accurately depict the efficiency of what was happening. Early on, as you would expect, it was chaos. You would get the same sort of chaos at a shopping mall at Christmas near closing time or at an airport during a snowstorm.

As for the water conditions — the weather being hot and the amount of water being available — people were making do under the difficult circumstances that they confronted. Again, I commend the officials, the public servants who really are the heroes in the way that this exercise was conducted.

Senator Downe: The reason I ask the question is that in your statement today, you mentioned that eight CSIS officers were assigned to the project. For 40,000 people, we can assume that in addition to the legitimate Canadian residents, there were others who saw an opportunity to enter Canada. I assume that CSIS would have missed some people and must be doing a follow-up.

I appreciate you cannot really get into those details. However, my question is: Is the department planning a follow- up? You took 40,000 people out. Are you seeking their views as to what can be improved, what worked for them and what did not?

Mr. MacKay: We actually took 15,000 out. We estimated there were between 40,000 to 50,000 citizens inside Lebanon. The final number was 15,000. We were prepared to take any of those who expressed an interest in leaving.

Thankfully and mercifully, the security situation improved and the evacuation then ceased operations. We phased it out over time to give people time to make the decision as to whether they wanted to stay.

The short answer is yes, there has been some follow-up and feedback from those who availed themselves of this exercise. I have met personally with a number of groups and evacuees who came back to Canada and those meetings are part of our best practices and lessons learned at the department, yes.

Senator Poy: Do you have to go now?

Mr. MacKay: I hear bells ringing.

Senator Poy: Perhaps your staff can help answer this question.

As Senator Jaffer said, there was, at the time, a perception that the evacuation was slow. I watched everything that happened closely, as I am sure we all did, and it amazed me how you found that many Canadians.

Probably, many of them did not have their Canadian passports if they have dual citizenship. They probably went back with Lebanese passports. Who did you choose? How did you know who actually had a passport? Maybe your staff can help in that?

Logistically I thought it was amazing that you actually found 15,000 people to get out.

Mr. MacKay: It was an exceptional exercise of diligence and perseverance to try to locate people. Much of it was anecdotal in asking the whereabouts of any Canadians or other relatives that might be in other parts of the country. There was as accumulation of information as time went on. Those who got out were able to give us more information about those who remained.

Perhaps Mr.Boehm may want to add to that.

Mr. Boehm: Senator, in the case of those Canadians who may not have had passports, we issued about 100 emergency passports a day. These passports are one-way and would take them back to Canada based on the information that we verified through Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the data banks.

In addition, Ambassador de Lorimier went on television and radio to make announcements because we knew that by telephone or contacting through our warden system we might not reach everyone, especially in the south where we were particularly concerned.

Senator Poy: Were there many people who wanted to come out and could not contact your department or the embassy?

Mr. MacKay: It is difficult to answer as to how many did not get out because they did not contact us. We have no way of knowing who did not contact us.

As the evacuation drew to a close, we had a phasing-out process over a number of days. We contacted everyone who had been on the list, everyone who had indicated their desire to leave, to let them know they had a three-day window to come to Beirut to avail themselves of this evacuation.

Contrary to some perceptions and some images that were projected, and coverage that was given to this event, the overwhelming majority of those Canadian-Lebanese citizens who returned to Canada were gracious, grateful and thankful to their country and to their government for the assistance that had been provided. That gratitude has been expressed repeatedly in the department.

The Chairman: Thank you for the questions that were put to the minister.

Minister MacKay, Mr. Desjardins and Mr. Boehm, we want to thank you for the frankness and clarity of your responses.

The committee adjourned.