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Behind the scenes: How government employees stepped in to help stranded Canadians

By Nadia Trudel

“When we started our workday on March 16, few of us grasped what was coming and the new roles we’d be taking on,” explains Jean-Louis Wallace, one of the many Global Affairs Canada employees who volunteered to take on extra work to support Canada’s COVID-19 repatriation efforts. Work had begun at the end of January 2020 but intensified in the following weeks, when countries declared states of emergency, instated nationwide lockdowns, closed borders and restricted air and land transport.

This led to the largest peacetime repatriation effort by the Government of Canada in Canadian history. Thanks to the tireless work of government employees in Canada and abroad, over 62 thousand Canadians stranded in 109 countries were able to come home.

In Ottawa, Global Affairs Canada’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre (EWRC) coordinated the repatriation efforts. A huge project, it meant recruiting volunteers from across the department to help.

Staff at Headquarters and missions around the globe worked countless hours for months to support the efforts. Wallace says this “provided a unique window into the different responsibilities our consular staff take on.” He also describes “the impressive and enthusiastic way the Global Affairs Canada community came together, regardless of rank and seniority.”

Anita Cule, logistics chief for the Headquarters Emergency Response Team (HQ-ERT) during the height of repatriation last spring, explains that “this operation was 24/7: scores of employees were needed to work in various roles on the HQ-ERT all hours of the day. To aid affected Canadians, we asked employees to work in the Emergency Contact Centre, and Standing Rapid Deployment Team members were deployed to Wuhan, Tokyo and San Francisco to assist stranded Canadians.”

The EWRC had to deal with the same challenges posed by the pandemic as everyone else. “We had to figure out a new way to work,” says Cule. “Social distancing meant we could not all sit in 1 room; chairs had to be removed—we got on our hands and knees to use duct tape to put arrows on the floor to guide traffic and called every store and distillery we could think of to try to find some hand sanitizer; it was a lot of coordination.”

Rifah Khan was one of the many staff who volunteered her time at the EWRC. She recounts taking a call from a panicked Canadian woman stuck in Peru: “She had a full-on panic attack and said she couldn’t breathe. Being Canadian, she then apologized, explaining that she suffered from anxiety. I took off my government official hat and became a friendly stranger. We counted to 5 together, forced out a breath and then did a grounding exercise. She was laughing by the time we said goodbye. Most people who were stranded in those situations simply needed reassurance. Most knew what to do but needed a sounding board. I hope the department gave Canadians the reassurance they needed.”

Although dealing with the consequences of the pandemic was challenging and often emotionally charged, most employees felt pride in helping so many Canadians. Jean-Louis Wallace notes that “through persistent resilience and teamwork we were able to get the work done. It was truly a Government of Canada team effort. People put their day jobs and their egos aside to get the job done. I am proud to have been part of it.

COVID-19 Repatriation timeline

Between February and July 2020 Global Affairs Canada helped 62,580 Canadian citizens and permanent residents fly back to Canada

January 23, 2020 – Wuhan, China is on lockdown

January 26 – Global Affairs Canada establishes an Emergency Response Team

January 29 – Global Affairs Canada issues Travel Advisory to avoid non-essential travel to Wuhan

February 6 – First chartered flight to Canada: 144 passengers arrive from Wuhan 

February 11 – Second chartered flight from Wuhan    

February 20 – Flight of Diamond Princess passengers from Tokyo

March 10 – Flight of Grand Princess passengers from Oakland

March 11 – WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic

March 13 – Global Affairs Canada issues Global Travel Advisory to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada

March 15 – Emergency Response Team starts operating 24/7 

March 16 – Prime Minister Trudeau asks Canadians abroad to return to Canada

March 16 – Canada announces the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program

March 17 – Global Affairs Canada receives over 9,000 emails and 5,800 calls in one day

March 21 – US–Canada border is closed to non-essential travel

March 21 – First assisted flight to Canada: 144 passengers arrive from Morocco

April 24 – More than 21,400 Canadians have returned on 175 flights

April 25 – All cruise ships with Canadian passengers are docked

May 10 – More than 3,100 COVID-19 Emergency loans have been approved, totalling $9.9 million

June 7 – More than 42,000 Canadians have returned on 435 flights from over 100 countries

July 17 – Final assisted flight to Canada: 166 passengers arrive from Trinidad and Tobago

July 18 – All 6,095 Canadians who were on ships at sea have disembarked

August 7, 2020 – End of emergency operations at Global Affairs Canada

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