Globe and Mail, July 26, 2006
THE MIDEAST CONFLICT: THE EVACUATION
Ottawa to review help for non-resident citizens
ALEX DOBROTA AND GLORIA GALLOWAY
CAMBRIDGE, ONT. and OTTAWA — Canada will re-examine the practice of paying to rescue its citizens who have made lives in other countries, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday as the evacuation in Lebanon winds down.
Nearly 40,000 Canadians have registered with the embassy in Beirut, most simply making known their presence in Lebanon, since Israel began shelling towns there two weeks ago. But many have sought help in fleeing the violence.
The potential cost of evacuating huge numbers of Lebanese Canadians, including some who moved permanently to Lebanon when the violence of the 1970s and 1980s abated, has prompted some critics to suggest that Mr. Harper was being overgenerous in saying Canada would foot the bill for their rescue.
“The government has taken the view on this particular occasion that, given the circumstances, given how suddenly it came upon us, that we would spare no expense to protect and to secure the safety of any Canadians who wanted to come to Canada,” Mr. Harper told reporters yesterday.
“But, in this case, our objective was to get as many people who wanted, out as quickly as possible and, obviously, to give precedence to residents, but we didn't restrict it to residents.”
Numbers suggest that most of the 8,700 people evacuated through the port of Beirut on ships chartered by Canada were tourists. Many Lebanese-Canadians have strong ties to their homeland and holiday there with relatives and friends.
But Mr. Harper's suggestion that the government will review the policy of helping to evacuate Canadians who have relocated to their countries of origin is unlikely to sit well with the immigrant communities he has been courting in his bid to win a majority government. His remarks represent another example of his willingness to take a strong and occasionally controversial stand on issues of principal or that appeal to his core constituency.
Canadians travelling abroad who are placed in a situation of danger and need to be evacuated are generally expected to cover the costs. But those fees are occasionally waived in the case of large-scale operations that involve extraordinary circumstances, Foreign Affairs officials have explained.
In either case, no distinction has been made between Canadians who make their home in Canada and those who have homes in other parts of the world. And no distinction is made between Canadians who are citizens of more than one country and those who belong to this country alone.
The Citizenship Act of 1977 permitted people to be citizens of Canada and another country. And, for decades, Canada has taken pride in the fact that it takes in people born in other parts of the world and embraces them as its own. Former prime minister John Diefenbaker pledged to bring in a Canadian citizenship that “knew no hyphenated consideration.”
Mr. Harper's remarks drew some harsh criticism from opposition members yesterday.
There was no complaint last year when Canada tried to rescue hundreds of its nationals from Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, said Dan McTeague, the Liberal who was responsible for the protection of Canadians overseas during the previous government.
“Why is it an issue today when it wasn't at this time last year?” he asked. “There is no such thing as degrees of citizenship or classes of citizenship. And what does it say about Canadians who are going around the world imparting their expertise and making Canada a world player? . . . [That] the Prime Minister might review whether or not it's worth the effort of trying to get them out?”
Bill Siksay, the NDP citizenship and immigration critic, said there is no distinction in Canadian citizenship for people who are resident in Canada and those who live elsewhere.
“When there is trouble around the world, I think the Canadian government should do all in its power to assist Canadian citizens,” he said. “And if that means helping people who are Canadian citizens who haven't been in Canada for a while, then I still think we absolutely have to help those people.”
Mazen Chouaib, executive director of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, who hails from Lebanon, said he has no problem with the Prime Minister's statements. Once the humanitarian crisis is resolved, he said, it might be worth debating Canada's responsibilities abroad.
“What I am concerned about is that this discussion and debate could lead to a reclassification of Canadian citizenship, creating different classes of citizens in Canada,” Mr. Chouaib said.
Government officials have refused to predict how much the largest evacuation in Canadian history will ultimately cost. And Mr. Harper was not willing to venture a guess yesterday.
“I can't give you a cost estimate at the moment,” he said. “I can only tell you the instruction I gave when we began the evacuation process was that we were to spare no expense; if necessary we were to fund it out of the contingency funds that the government of Canada does have.”