(No. 53 - February 4, 2011 - 12:40 p.m. ET) The following is an edited transcript of a statement made in the House of Commons by the Honourable Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs), on the situation in Egypt. The statement was made in the House of Commons at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, February 2, 2011:
"Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague the honourable member for Toronto Centre, the Liberal critic for foreign affairs [the Honourable Bob Rae], who initiated this important debate in the House tonight, because the situation in Egypt has riveted many Canadians. They are following these events closely, and it is helpful that we in the House provide perspective and some sense of where Canadians and Canadian legislators stand on the events that will surely change the face of at least one very important country.
"I would like to take a different perspective on these events because I have just recently been appointed minister of state of foreign affairs, with particular responsibility for consular services. It may be of interest to people following this debate if I talk about consular services. We saw in Egypt, as the situation became more unstable, that our government, through its consular services in Egypt ably assisted by personnel from other missions in the region, sprang into action to support and assist Canadians who wanted to get to a safe haven.
"I am splitting my time with the member for Newmarket–Aurora.
"To set the stage, Canadians should know that millions of other Canadians are abroad at any given time. Canadians live, work and study in other countries. Canadians actively travel to other countries.
"What do Canadians need to know as they travel abroad and—as we saw in recent days—they are caught up in unanticipated events? First, we recommend that Canadians who are travelling abroad consult the website. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada puts up a website named, simply, travel.gc.ca. This website gives advice about unexpected situations that Canadians might face in a particular country.
"It also allows someone travelling abroad to register on a website called Registration of Canadians Abroad. Why should anyone do that? If a person goes missing or gets caught up in some violence and nobody knows where he or she is, it is very hard for our consular people to make contact and give assistance. In Egypt, we were able to call or attempt to call those who had registered, even though communications were down, and offer services to get people to a safe haven.
"In the case of Egypt, we had about 6,500 Canadians who were living, working or travelling in Egypt. However, less than 1,400 were registered. Only a fraction of people register, and it is very helpful if they do. Every minute of every day, Foreign Affairs receives two requests for assistance at some point in the consular service landscape.
"In 2010, over one million Canadians received some form of assistance, and in the last five years demand for consular assistance has actually increased by 32 percent. In budget 2008, we put more resources into these services to allow us to better support Canadians.
"These funds were partly used for the construction of a new emergency watch and response centre. That was a new initiative. Also, my appointment and the addition of consular duties to this particular portfolio is a new and heightened emphasis on providing good consular services.
"There are two main categories of consular services. One is prevention and education, and one is assistance. Of course, we hope that knowledge is power, and if people have the knowledge they need they will not need assistance. We try to provide people with information and advice as they travel in order to prepare them to handle emergencies that might arise.
"Of course, people who decide to travel assume a certain risk. There are things we can do to prepare ourselves. One is to take note of the emergency consular telephone line. It is staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That number is 613-996-8885. Through the number of calls received from Egypt, this line somehow crashed. That helped us to realize we needed backup for the technology. We are going to be prepared for that kind of eventuality.
"In the last few days, we have received almost 14,000 calls on the emergency lines from people abroad wanting to know how to get assistance and perhaps get to safe havens, as well as from families and friends in Canada wanting an update on what was available.
"The website that I mentioned, travel.gc.ca, receives more than 12,000 visits a day. We know that some Canadians are beginning to use it. It gives reports on over 200 countries where Canadians might want to travel. It talks about the security situation in the country. it provides official travel warnings advising against travel and information on how to contact the nearest mission. It is a good website for people to consult and register with so the government knows how to reach people in case of an emergency. We also have some other products to help educate Canadians, which can be found at Service Canada and other places.
"We are proud of the consular services. I visited one of our consular operations overseas in January. One of the officers said something very interesting to me. He said, "We do not consider what we do, helping Canadians, to be a job. We consider it to be a calling." They are very passionate about supporting Canadians, and it was heartwarming.
"We have a network of these services. They provide assistance to Canadians 24/7. We are always looking to do better, and we want to support and help Canadians, some of whom face very distressing situations abroad, sometimes very unexpected ones.
"The earthquake in Haiti and now the situation in Egypt are two fairly recent examples of what can happen when people are travelling and need to reach out to the services that are provided by the Canadian government to support and assist them. We encourage Canadians to be informed, as prepared as they can be, and to be alert while they are travelling. That being said, I assure everyone that when Canadians require assistance abroad, as they have recently in Egypt, they will receive it from this government."
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