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An outstanding repatriation effort

Three Canadian agents on the tarmac, observing a passenger plane.

Two years ago, in January 2020, a new virus appeared, so virulent and contagious that it would disrupt life as we knew it. Countries quickly declared a state of emergency. National lockdowns were imposed, borders were closed to civilian travel and Canadian citizens were urged to return to Canada. Let’s look back at the largest peacetime repatriation effort in Canadian history.

From March to July 2020, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) employees worked tirelessly to bring over 62,000 people back to Canada. This tremendous collective endeavour was carried out in over 100 countries. Unprecedented logistical efforts were made while civil aviation was grounding its operations indefinitely.

Canadians in Honduras boarding a chartered plane to the international airport.

GAC’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre (EWRC), in Ottawa, coordinated repatriation efforts: a huge project that meant recruiting volunteers from across the department to pitch in. Headquarters and mission staff all over the world worked around the clock for several months to support these efforts.

At the height of this operation, 1,000 employees were responding to hundreds of enquiries per day, while others coordinated diplomatic teams on the ground and airline companies that chartered hundreds of flights to bring home people who were stranded abroad. Members of the Standing Rapid Deployment Team were also sent to Wuhan, Tokyo and San Francisco. Even François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, rolled up his sleeves to serve as virtual travel agent, negotiating landing times for Canadian aircrafts in some closed countries.

A plane, with a few people around it.

Long will we remember this phenomenal operation! It is also important to recall that the federal employees from various departments who worked to repatriate their fellow citizens carried out this gargantuan task while familiarizing themselves with ever-changing elements of pandemic protocol. A host of challenges were overcome during this multi-departmental collaboration, and many innovations contributed to achieving this mission.

Thank you to everyone, from near and far, who contributed to this repatriation operation that will not soon be forgotten!

A few key dates

  • January 26, 2020 – Global Affairs Canada created an Emergency Response Team.
  • March 11, 2020 – The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
  • March 13, 2020 – Global Affairs Canada issued a travel advisory to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada.
  • March 15, 2020 – The Emergency Response Team commenced 24/7 operations.
  • March 16, 2020 – Prime Minister Trudeau asked Canadians abroad to return to Canada.
  • March 17, 2020 – Global Affairs Canada received over 9,000 emails and 5,800 calls in one day.
  • March 21, 2020 – The Canada–U.S. Border was closed to non-essential travel.
  • March 21, 2020 – First assisted flight to Canada: 144 passengers arrived from Morocco.
  • July 17, 2020 – Last assisted flight to Canada: 166 passengers arrived from Trinidad and Tobago.
  • August 7, 2020 – End of emergency operations at Global Affairs Canada.
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