Transcript – Episode 49: A chat with Brent Robson on the Canadian COVID-19 repatriation operation

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

And now introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada’s deputy minister of International Trade, John Hannaford.

John Hannaford: Hello everyone. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to continue with another conversation about our community at GAC [Global Affairs Canada]. This edition of our podcast is about a fairly recent period in our history. A really important time for us as a community and as a country.

I’m very fortunate to have with me today my colleague, Chris MacLennan, who is our associate deputy minister of foreign affairs, who will also be part of this conversation and has been very intimately involved in our various efforts over the course of the last year. Chris, hi.

Christopher MacLennan: Hi. Good morning everyone, this is my first time that I’ve had the chance, in fact, to be a part of this great initiative by John—that I know John has been doing for over a year now, and the topic that we’re going to talk about today, in fact. As you know, it’s probably been about a year and a half since I was appointed associate deputy minister of foreign affairs and my very first meeting as deputy minister was about Diamond Princess. So, and I would say that, in fact, the first 3 months of my tenure as associate deputy minister were completely overwhelmed with repatriation issues, to such a point that the only exception was the trip to Saudi Arabia for the G20 where I, myself, risked being among the Canadians caught overseas. So, this is a subject that has been completely ingrained into my memory, as those first few months of coming to the DMA [associate deputy minister of foreign affairs] role in our department. And so, I’m really looking forward to the 1-year anniversary, I guess, of the wrap-up of those efforts. Really looking forward to taking part in the conversation with a couple of members who were directly involved.

John Hannaford: Well, that’s great. And as you say, we’re fortunate to have a couple of colleagues here to share their memories of this quite extraordinary time. First, we have Brent Robson, who is our director of emergency operations. He’s spent an awful lot of time working on consular over the course of his career, but obviously had a particularly concentrated set of experiences over the course of the last year. And we also have with us from our embassy in Morocco, Anne-Marie Spain, who is the head of consular in that mission and was directly involved in the repatriation flights that came from Rabat over the course of the last year. So, thank you to both of you for joining us today. It’s really terrific that you are taking the time. Maybe I’ll start with you, Brent. I just wanted to get a sense from you, really your memories of this period. You know, my memory is—at the outset—was just how quickly things moved. We went from seeing obviously a lot of challenges in the world. But by March, we’d been issuing our travel advice and we had been very quickly called upon to respond to an unprecedented set of challenges. I just wanted you to kind of give us a sense as to what that was like for you and your team and sort of how that unfolded for you.

Brent Robson: Well, I mean, I will certainly say it was a rather intense period. To be honest, all the days merged together in my head. It was such an intense period of time where we were dealing with situations that we had never seen before. We were trying to onboard hundreds and hundreds of people into our emergency response in the EWRC [Emergency Watch and Response Centre] when we didn’t really have the structures in place to onboard that volume of people. We plan all the time for all these different emergencies that are happening around the world. And I chuckled a little bit, because I did work a little bit in exercising in a previous job. And we always come up with these exercises where we have 1 or 2 or sometimes even 3 events happening. And the missions are always like, “Oh, that’s impossible. That could never happen.” And it sort of makes me smile now because we never plan to evacuate the world. And so, it’s really amazing when we think back. I don’t think anyone ever even expected that this is something that we should do, let alone could do—it was a period of intense work. We achieved amazing things, incredible collaboration, incredible innovation that was happening. I will never say I want something like this to happen again, but it was a great experience in terms of learning what we—the department and government—can do when push comes to shove. It was an amazing period.

John Hannaford: It certainly opens the door to a whole new set of exercises, doesn’t it? Nothing is unrealistic anymore. But I guess maybe just to expand on 1 point you made; 1 of the things that was notable to me during this period was this became a department wide exercise. I mean, you were onboarding, as you say, a bunch of folks who don’t normally do consular. They were coming from all sorts of parts of the department wanting to help, and sort of thrown into the emergency watch centre [Emergency Watch and Response Centre]. Just give us a sense as to what that was like. What was the field in the centre? How did you find that you were able to direct people? Any reflections?

Brent Robson: Yeah. When the prime minister made his announcement, it was literally that day. Our calls spiked enormously. So, we do know that when the prime minister makes announcements, people do listen because we absolutely saw that spike in that volume of calls and emails. And we knew instantly [that] we didn’t have the resources to deal with that. But we were also in a period where Ottawa and the Outaouais was going into lockdown. So, people weren’t coming to the office. And I don’t think we quite wrapped our head around remote work at that point in time. So we knew that there were some resources out there. And when the call went out saying, “Hey, we need some help. If you are willing and available to come and help, please put your hand up,” people put their hands up. We onboarded—really just on the EWRC portion of the COVID response—well over a thousand individuals, to train them up on how to take phone calls, basic consular skills and knowledge, basic emergency management skills and knowledge. And I think it’s great, though, because we now have this cadre of over a thousand people who now have that basic knowledge and that understanding of how EM [emergency management] works in the department that we can now draw upon and call upon for future emergencies. But it was really intense. And the other thing that was really a lot of fun with that is we had EWRC employees who had never really taken on a supervisory role that were onboarding them, and they were putting people into groups and training them, and mentoring people and coaching people. It was an amazing opportunity for innovative solutions on how to onboard people to float to the top—and really amazing leadership skills of our colleagues to float to the top. And perhaps they wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise. So, there was so many great things that came out of this that we’re still benefiting from today.

Christopher MacLennan: So that’s my recollection as well—is that, kind of, crazy initial days of kind of realizing, “Yeah, we’ve got the book on the shelf that tells us what we’re supposed to do, but there’s like chapters missing for what the problem is that we’re facing.” Maybe just 1 thing to think about. So, stories are many of the things that I remember about, kind of, the days and sometimes in the weeks that this went by. Where some story would encapsulate the experience that you were having in so many ways. And I was wondering—I’ll start with you, Brent, but then after, I’ll ask Anne-Marie, as well, the same question. Is there a particular story that you like to retell, and that you’ve been telling over the past year, of something that was either particularly funny, or particularly striking or moving, that really encapsulated the experience for you?

Brent Robson: I mean, it’s a little bit less of a story, but it’s something that we still talk about in the EWRC and we laugh about, and it’s really how the whole COVID-19 crisis started. So if we really think back and we think back to January, we were getting into the Wuhan response at that point. And I think people know that we sent 6 employees from our embassy in Beijing. We sent them down to Hubei province to coordinate on the ground. And everyone was working really hard. They were working full out. But that repatriation flight, it just hadn’t quite come together yet. And, I think it was on about day 8; 1 of our colleagues in the Emergency Watch and Response Centre correctly noted that while we had all been diligently working to get 400 Canadians and PRs [permanent residents] out of Wuhan, all we’d really achieved so far was to add 6 Canadians to the city. And in the end, you know, a flight happened a day or 2 later. But even before we had wrapped up, we got into Diamond Princess, and that was a very, very complicated response. We worked on Diamond Princess for a few weeks. We repatriated, I think, 129 people out of Japan. And while we were still helping affected individuals in Japan—they were getting medical care—in the EWRC, we did a little bit of a “mission achieved” moment. That was perhaps a bit premature, because then we rolled right into the Grand Princess cruise ship in San Francisco and again jumped into action. And, I distinctly remember that when the aircraft was in the air, 1 of our senior officials stated that, “OK, we are now done with COVID evacuations.” So just looking back, it’s kind of funny that these were really just warm-ups for what was to come and certainly great learning opportunities. They gave us a lot of insight as to what was to come about a month later—or, actually, a couple of weeks later.

Christopher MacLennan: But, in fact, it’s exactly that—not knowing what was coming next. Each event seemed like an unreal achievement. And who knew that right after, we still had other things to do—and a year later even. So, Anne-Marie, you had a different perspective, of course, of being on posting. So, for you, do you have any particular memories that struck you at the time, and that even a year later you still think about?

Anne-Marie Spain: Definitely. So, I have to say that the 10 very intense days of the beginning of the crisis, for me, I will remember them all my life because it’s really memorable. But to explain a little more to you, my little magic moment, I’ll give you some context. It was March 14. On Saturday, a few program managers gathered at the ambassador’s to try to see how we would respond to the situation, because the Moroccans were slowly starting to close flights to Europe. And, we also wanted to see how we would manage our response to the pandemic at the mission because we were just starting to talk about telework and how we would manage all that. We got up to leave, the phone rang, the ambassador answered. It was the minister of foreign affairs who had called to tell her that, as of tomorrow, flights to and from Canada were cancelled. So, imagine the situation. We immediately started to activate the emergency response team and tried to see how we would manage this crisis. The next step—the next day, in fact—flights to Canada—all the flights—were suspended and then we were told that we had 4 days to organize special flights to our destinations and that the embassies had to organize these special flights. So, imagine the pressure a little bit. The first thing we tried to do was to make sure that the Air Canada flight scheduled for Monday could land. However, this flight would not be able to land, would not be able to carry passengers, because even the crew members could not leave the plane to rest. So, it was an empty flight with only the crew members who would be able to bring back the plane, and the crew members who were in Morocco. So, this first flight, we obtained the authorizations so that it could take off. And Air Canada told us that they would not be able to organize other flights because the crew did not have time to rest between both flights. So, this option did not exist anymore. So, we start negotiating with Royal Air Maroc. Imagine the state of mind of the Canadians a bit. They had no way of getting back home. They expected the embassy to organize flights to repatriate them because this was the only way. On Monday, we referred our calls to the emergency centre [Emergency Watch and Response Centre] because we were unable to handle the volume of calls. That week, we received more than 2,000 emails, and more than 500 people came to the embassy to be able to get answers on, “What are you doing for us? How will you get us home?” At that time, the government had not announced that we were going to be organizing repatriation flights. So, the pressure and tension were very intense. You will recall that people were very vocal in the media in Canada as well. So, the pressure was there. Thursday—the day special flights were to be suspended—still nothing. But the deadline was pushed back to Sunday. On Friday, a state of health emergency was declared in Morocco. People were no longer allowed to move around, unless they had special authorization. Restaurants were closed and hotels were expected to be closed as well. So, people were literally in a panic because what is going to happen to them? It was a lot of tourists who have no connection to Morocco—other than being there on vacation—who have no family and who have to go back to their life in Canada. So, it’s on that day, Friday, that we got the authorization from Global Affairs [Canada] to organize a flight for the next day. At 10 pm, the flight was announced. An hour later, the flight was completely sold out. And then, you had to deal with the frustration of these people. The next day, I was at the airport to help with boarding and to provide consular services. We had people who were not happy because they were stuck. They had no way to come back. So, unfortunately, we wanted to help them so much, but we couldn’t guarantee that there would be other repatriation flights because we had a deadline, which was that day. There were no more flights after that and we had no guarantee that we would be able to organize other flights. Fortunately, our minister of foreign affairs had come to Morocco a few months earlier and had developed a very close relationship with the minister of foreign affairs. We managed to get authorization to organize other flights even though all flights were suspended. A second repatriation flight was announced. Very happy to be able to help even more people and finally move forward; 45 minutes after the announcement of the flight, the flight was full. So, we also went around the next day welcoming people. But, at the same time, we were able to announce the third repatriation flight. So, the second flight was much calmer at the airport. And the people were much more satisfied. The third flight took place. I had the chance to come back to Canada on this flight and join my family. So, we boarded the plane, we made sure that there were no empty seats on that flight. So, we contacted our Mexican and American colleagues who had helped us repatriate Canadian citizens on their own flights to tell them, “Listen, send your people—the people who are waiting for a stand-by flight. If, at the last minute, there are seats left on the flight, once all the Canadians and permanent residents have boarded and everyone is in their place, we can offer these flights to those people. So, in fact, maybe an hour before boarding, we were making calls. We helped people on the spot with their credit cards. We had people at the embassy who made calls because we had a special code to sell these tickets, because we wanted the flight to be full, full, full, full, full! We managed to sell the tickets. Everything was going well. I left for the plane imagining that everything was under control and that it was the end. I sat in my seat. All was well. I was in touch with the team that was still at boarding through WhatsApp, only to realize that no, there is a problem: these people can’t board. They were held at boarding. So, the ambassador: “Go see the pilot, find a solution, go see the pilot, so, there’s a problem. We have to find a solution.” I left with the pilot, who, after consulting with his crew, asked for permission to delay the departure a little bit so that we could make sure that these people could board. I left with the pilot to go in the airport. We talked to Swissport. We went to security. We talked to everybody and said, “These people have to board.” The government agreed. Everything was under control. They managed to finish. I saw them arrive at security. At the same time, I heard the embassy team, which remained on the other side, shouting victory! We are there, we are there, we are coming! They passed through security. I ran with the pilot and the passengers to the plane. We sat down. It was good! We could leave! No, the plane was going forwards and the plane was going backwards! It was surreal—because we had a consular code on the plane, someone who was not feeling well and who had to leave the plane. We accompanied this person to the exit. I wrote to my colleagues who stayed behind, who were still at the airport, “Wait to see if he needs to be accompanied.” Finally, the flight managed to land 140 hours of work later; 10 hyper-intense days that I will remember all my life. And then, my little magic moment was that the pilot who flew that Air Canada flight—it was his last flight before he could retire after 40 years of service. So, he was so dedicated, so proud to be able to accomplish this last flight to—as he said himself—accompany his people back to Canada and make sure that everyone could return. So, really very, very intense moments, but very, very satisfying.

John Hannaford: I can imagine. Maybe Brent, back to you. You’d mentioned in your earlier remarks a couple of things—sort of, the use of exercises, but also just what this was as kind of a learning opportunity, not just for your team, but for the department generally. What were the major lessons you take from that? What do we do better now, as a result of the experience you went through?

Brent Robson: You know, there’s a couple approaches to kind of looking at that question. I mean, I think we now have better tools and systems and mechanisms that enable us. It’s everything from having the remote work capacity, which is a bit of a godsend if something really critical happens. We don’t need access to 125 Sussex. We can work from home. It’s other technical pieces that are also really important, for example, the flight model. So, the flight model that we had with the private sector companies—the commercially facilitated flights. This is something that will always stay in our toolkit because it was a great innovation and it was immensely successful. But I think that there’s other things that are really, really valuable. I think we got a really good lesson in resilience, for example. I think people now understand that emergency response isn’t a C-Branch responsibility; it’s a departmental responsibility. And I think that’s important. I think that in the area of resilience, we went to 24/7 operations in the EWRC. And I think it’s human nature that when you have a file that you’re really invested in, that you don’t want to cast your file to someone else. But if you’re 24/7, you have to do that, or you don’t get the sleep, or you don’t get to see your loved ones at home, or whatever. And we really learnt and developed the system so that we could pass that file onto other people, so that we could achieve amazing results in this repatriation operation—but at the same time, have a semblance of work-life balance and really look out for the wellness of ourselves and our employees. And arguably, that was one of the biggest learnings that we had in the EWRC—was how to kind of do this in a 24/7 operation and really bring home that wellness piece for us.

Christopher MacLennan: That’s really good. It’s a difficult question, this “lessons learned” for a once-in-a-generation or a once-in-a-lifetime event. And I think it’s something that we’re asking ourselves across a whole range of issues: from vaccine procurement, to border openings and closings, right through to our repatriation efforts. I think that’s great. Well, we’re coming close to a close, so maybe a final question for both of you. And that’s whether or not there’s any kind of final thoughts that you’d like to leave the GAC audience on—either the perspective from Headquarters or the perspective from the field—on what the experience has meant for you.

Brent Robson: From my perspective, I just would like to acknowledge that this repatriation operation—we couldn’t have done it without the collaboration, the cooperation of so many people across the department, both at Headquarters and at mission. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to leverage that in the coming, not-too-distant, future to bring people into a bit of an emergency management community, or at least those who are interested in doing so. But my immense respect and thanks to everyone for stepping up to the plate when it was needed. It was everyone else that made this happen.

Anne-Marie Spain: And, regarding missions, I think Brent’s comments apply as well because it was not just the Canadian employees who contributed, but all the local employees who had not necessarily done consular work before and who also contributed to answering calls, providing letters, giving loans, calling people. But I remind you that it was mid-March, so my employees also had to manage the end of the fiscal year because we have two programs, common services and consular, that they had to manage on their own, since we were not available to help with that; the whole logistical side as well as the logistical support that was provided by the local employees; the security people who made sure that we stayed safe, who responded to Canadians in distress, who wanted answers and who came to the mission; the people who came with us to the airport to help us in the local language. The list goes on and on. The people who helped negotiate with the airlines, with the local authorities, and who monitored social media, who provided answers. We had 10 days to organize all this and, so, it was definitely a collective effort. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it. Then we were in a pandemic. We knew very little about the virus. At that time, we didn’t really know how it would evolve, how to protect ourselves. We didn’t know any of that, but no one hesitated to show up to work, to be there every day, and to put in long days to make sure everyone got home. The feeling of satisfaction—I wish I could share it—the smiles we saw, the thanks, with everyone who contributed to this effort because it’s really something special that will stay with me for a long time because as a federal public servant, moments like this don’t happen every day. It’s really something that stands out. Then, to see how you can make an incredible difference in people’s lives. It’s a very precious thing. I think I am very, very proud of my team, very proud of the embassy team and very proud to have been able to contribute to these great moments.

Christopher MacLennan: Thank you very much Brent and Anne-Marie. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. This was certainly an event that touched GAC as a whole. As we all know, consular services is the place where our department reaches out to the average Canadian, and it is one of the most important places for the department in terms of our international relations. Huge thank you. I’d like to wish everybody, on behalf of the deputies, a fantastic National Public Service Week. We’re all looking forward to the plaque. It’s going to be revealed for the efforts of the entire department in this space. And this podcast is actually going to be a part of that memory as well. So, thank you for taking the time for doing this with us.

All: Thank you.

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