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Haiti and Elliot Lake: The ties that bind earthquakes and shopping mall collapses

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The June 23, 2012 shopping mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario has highlighted serious deficiencies in emergency response systems in the province of Ontario, if not across Canada. 

The rescue operation has come under bewildered and heavy criticism for failing to immediately send heavy equipment that could assist in freeing those trapped in the rubble and calling off rescue efforts 50 hours following the accident. The rescue was ordered to resume following an extraordinary intervention by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

It's uncertain if the effort could have saved either of the two lives lost had it continued uninterrupted or if heavy equipment had arrived more quickly. What is clear, however, is the dysfunction that reigned in the hours and even days following the collapse. This is now the subject of intense media scrutiny, including a challenging column on June 28 by Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohen.

Premier McGuinty has been obliged to call a public inquiry into the rescue effort. Looming large over the whole story but unlikely to get much attention there, or prompt any effective redress, are the cuts to the funding of urban emergency services by the Harper federal government contained in its omnibus, budget Bill C-38. (More background to these cuts here.)

Coast Guard emergency services are also being hit, in circumstances where successive federal governments have tried, and so far failed, to eliminate staffing of coastal lighthouses. On the large scale of things, the lives they save or the emergency services they can kick start into action, including environmental emergencies, are apparently not worth the price. (Government efforts also continue to abandon unstaffed lighthouses, including dismissing their cultural and architectural significance ).

Unsettling parallels between Elliot Lake and Haiti

CBC radio and television reports picked up on the confusion and indecision occurring in Elliot Lake disaster in the hours then days following that tragedy. Television news anchor Peter Mansbridge asked an expert during a broadcast, ‘Canada sends disaster relief around the world, why is it having such difficulty at home, in Elliot Lake?' Like much of CBC reporting these days, this contained a mix of fact and fiction.

One of the untold stories of the January 12, 2012 Haiti earthquake was the decision by Canada to order its five Heavy Urban Search And Rescue (HUSAR) teams to stand down, three days after the earthquake struck. 'They don't have the expertise nor the equipment to do what's needed in Haiti,' said then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon.

Residents on the west coast of Canada should have been unsettled by this claim, living as we do on a major tectonic fault lie. Alas, there was not the same outcry that greeted the decision of the Liberal government of the day to not send the Canadian military's Disaster Assistance Relief Team to Sri Lanka following the Dec. 26, 2004 Asian Tsunami. (It did so following a considerable hue and cry, though to what effect appears to be unstudied.)

How to explain Mr. Cannon's assessment of the state of Canada's five federally-funded HUSARS (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax)? For sure, it was an insult to those teams. They had trained for years for just such a call. They had mobilized during the hours following the earthquake and were fully mobilized and ready to go. Canada was one of the few major countries to fail to send its civilian search and rescue teams to Haiti. (Iceland, China and many other countries, in contrast, arrived within hours.)

Presumably, Minister Cannon's media relations person had the weekend off and left the minister to wing it, for this was an important political moment. Canada had invested considerable resources during the previous eight years in building a 'new' Haiti, following its participation in the overthrow of Haiti's elected government in February 2004.

No, the reason that the HUSAR's were ordered to stand down had everything to do with the politics of meddling and intervention in Haiti by Canada and its U.S. and European allies during those years. When the earthquake struck, the foremost concern of the big powers was what might happen to the all-important ‘political stability' that had been achieved as of the overthrow of the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. But the minister could hardly say that, so he winged it otherwise.

Instead of trained search and rescue teams, Canada sent a military force dressed up as humanitarian earthquake relief. Its leaders were quite frank in their subsequent reporting that the first and foremost preoccupation of the two warships that arrived in Haiti eight days after the disaster was to ensure 'stability.' Only then did the limited humanitarian relief they carried roll out. (In the case of the parallel, U.S. military effort, while it provided more substantive relief-with a military hospital ship, for example-its sheer scale and its chosen method of operation became a significant impediment to the delivery of relief supplies, notably at the national airport.)

The story of Canada's military mission to Haiti in the days following the earthquake is told in my October, 2010 article on the subject.

One year after the earthquake, the Canadian Press reported that Canada's military resisted 'strong pressure' to stay in Haiti after it announced that its military operation would leave the country only six weeks after its arrival.

Could it be there is a common thread in all these stories: of political and economic interests trumping or excluding humanitarian consideration? In the case of Haiti, the evidence is overwhelmingly ‘yes.' In Elliot Lake, the evident weakness and confusion in the state of preparedness of emergency relief coupled with funding cuts by the federal government suggests the same.

At least we are now likely to have a substantive proper public airing and debate over emergency preparedness in Canada. Concerning post-earthquake Haiti, where some 60,000-70,000 more people died than in Elliot Lake and where hundreds of thousands of survivors are still living in ramshackle survivor camps, its post-earthquake lessons remain a largely untold story to Canadians.

A petition and lobbying campaign concerning housing in Haiti will soon be launched by Haitian and international advocates, directed at the Haitian and international governments as well as UN officials. It will spotlight concerns and insist that a vast program of public housing be undertaken.

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