Finest hour for Canada’s military

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Sun Media, Friday, January 22, 2010

Peter MacKay was in Halifax, waiting to board a flight to Ottawa last Tuesday afternoon, when he got word of an earthquake measuring seven on the Richter scale that would level Port-au-Prince and leave Haiti in ruins.

He’d been to the Haitian capital in an earlier role as foreign affairs minister and he’d seen both the abject poverty of its people and the fragility of its buildings that, as he said, “weren’t much to begin with. You could tell immediately it was going to be catastrophic.”

He said his first thought was, “How quickly are we going to be able to mobilize on this?”

Still on the ground in Halifax, he got on the phone with Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk, who was in the air returning to Ottawa from Edmonton.

“Fortunately we were able to spool up a plane and reconnaissance team right away,” MacKay said from the defence minister’s Ottawa office.

“It’s tantamount to having volunteer firefighters pull on their boots and race to the scene of the fire.”

Except that Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team hopped on a Hercules transport, landed on instruments at badly damaged Port-au-Prince airport and were on the ground making an initial assessment within 24 hours.

By the next day, help had been dispatched in the form of two navy ships sailing from Halifax, and was already arriving by heavy lift on board four massive C-17 air transports, which have since evacuated over 1,000 Canadians.

The rapid response to the Haitian disaster is very different from the Asian tsunami of 2004 when it took days to get the DART team out and the Canadian Forces had to rent heavy lift from the Russians. The C-17 is about two-thirds the size of a football field.

“We were able to jump the queue in terms of getting them,” said MacKay, “because the Americans recognize the importance of the humanitarian and relief work we do. Their maiden voyage was in similar circumstances last summer, to Jamaica, after a hurricane.

“They’re ours. We don’t have to rent them.”

And for that, honour is due Gordon O’Connor, the crusty retired brigadier and former defence minister who, on taking office in 2006, insisted that we had to have our own heavy lift and took a lot of incoming opposition flack for the $1.8-billion procurement.

“Gordon O’Connor and the military planners deserve a lot of credit,” MacKay said. “The C-17s have proven invaluable.”

And would have proven even more invaluable if they and the two navy ships could have disgorged some of the 50 state-of-the-art EH-101 helicopters cancelled by the Chretien government on its first day in office in 1993.

“It sure would have been nice,” MacKay admitted. We are getting by in Haiti with six Griffons and one ancient Sea King, which now requires 30 hours maintenance for every hour in the air.

With 2,000 troops in Haiti, another 3,000 in Afghanistan and a further 5,000 scheduled to deploy to Vancouver for the Olympics, the question is whether the Canadian military is being stretched too thin.

“Don’t forget the 3,000 training in Texas,” MacKay said, for the next rotation into Afghanistan.

“We are,” he said, “firing on all cylinders.”

And Haiti is certainly among their finest hours.

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