As Canadians try to escape Haiti, some feel their own government left them behind

When the helicopter finally left the ground from a grass field in Haiti, David Rocheleau says he finally felt a sense of relief.

After making it out of the embattled island nation plagued by anarchy and gang violence, the Quebec resident told CBC News it took a “convoy-like” row of armoured vehicles to get him to the helicopter headed to the Dominican Republic — all trailing behind a motorcycle that drove ahead to check for gangs in the area.

But Rocheleau said Canadian authorities had nothing to do with his rescue on Wednesday. Instead, he said, the business he worked with paid tens of thousands of dollars for the private rescue company, International SOS, to get him out.

He filmed his rescue and gave CBC News exclusive access to the footage.

“Someone in the Canadian Embassy who has all this information could have done this … that’s what pisses me off,” Rocheleau said. “If someone had their head together and took the initiative, they could have easily done it.”

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Canada’s efforts to get citizens out of Haiti ‘not cutting it,’ says Quebecer who fled

David Rocheleau describes his ‘stressful and worrisome’ escape from Haiti and says the Canadian government’s support network in the country should be bolstered to support other Canadians stuck in Haiti. ‘The U.S. is doing it, why can’t Canada get out and do it?’ he told CBC’s Travis Dhanraj.

Roughly 3,000 Canadians are registered in Haiti, according to Global Affairs Canada (GAC). The government agency said Friday it responded to 245 inquiries since violence erupted earlier this month among rival gangs, closing the international airport in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and leaving foreigners stranded amid increasing kidnappings, robberies and violent crime.

GAC said some of the requests it received had to do with general travel information and the security situation in Haiti, while others concerned ways to evacuate.

But Tanya English said when her Canadian relative trapped in Haiti attempted to reach out for help, GAC was no help.

CBC News is not identifying English’s relative in Haiti in order to protect their safety, but it has been in direct contact with the relative, who is trying to conserve their phone battery amid an electricity shortage and granted English permission to share their story.

The Canadian, who spent decades doing humanitarian work in Haiti, was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and was supposed to return to Canada at the beginning of March for a followup treatment appointment, English said.

That trip never happened.

WATCH | Canada hasn’t decided yet on evacuating citizens from Haiti, ambassador says: 

Canada hasn’t decided yet on evacuating citizens from Haiti, ambassador says

André François Giroux, Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, says the Canadian government is preparing for ‘all eventuality’ regarding its citizens in Haiti, but said ‘assisted departure’ is ‘very much a last-resort option.’ Giroux’s comments come after some Canadians told CBC News they feel abandoned in Haiti amid worsening violence.

Canadian frustrated with Ottawa’s response

Email correspondence between English’s relative and GAC was obtained by CBC News.

After being given information on how to keep themselves safe, the Canadian wrote on March 17, “Thanks for the info but I was hoping you could help me to evacuate. How can you help me to evacuate?”

Global Affairs then replied, “As you are registered with ROCA, it will enable you to receive important safety updates from the Government of Canada,” referring to Registration of Canadians Abroad, a free service that allows the government to notify travellers of an emergency.

On Wednesday, GAC asked the Canadian if they’d be willing to leave Haiti if departure options become available at a potential “cost recovery basis.” But the following day, it sent another email saying the government of Canada “is not facilitating assisted departures or repatriation flights for Canadians in Haiti at this time.”

“They get this glimmer of hope, thinking, ‘Ah, finally,’ and then they’re completely shattered again,” English said. “They’re just getting absolutely utterly depressed because absolutely nobody cares.”

GAC has not responded to specific questions from CBC News in time for publication, but the agency indicated it cannot comment on specific consular cases.

A man and little boy crouch as they hold hands and walk.
People take cover from gunfire near the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, on Thursday. Violence erupted earlier this month among rival gangs, resulting in a state of anarchy. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

Although the Canadian is still trapped in Haiti, they said they found a potential escape plan through a veteran-led non-profit based in Florida called Project DYNAMO. The organization has confirmed to CBC News that the Canadian requested its help.

But unlike Rocheleau, who waited on standby for two days at a hotel with armed guards hired to keep his group safe, the days went by and Project DYNAMO was unable to obtain the air clearance to get the Canadian out of Haiti.

“I have four helicopters sitting 20 minutes away from me right now — idle,” said Bryan Stern, the founder and CEO of Project DYNAMO. “They’re fuelled, they’re funded, they have pilots. Why won’t they fly? Well, the Dominicans will say that they can’t give us authorization to fly…. Haiti says [they] don’t care.” Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

Sitting in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, Stern expressed frustration that his group — which does rescues free of charge through donations — has yet to get permission to use the airspace from the Dominican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while for-profit companies have been able to operate similar missions.

Bullets can ‘start flying’ at any time

Paul Doucet, regional security director for International SOS, said in an interview the company credits its compliance with regional laws and connection with relevant departments to having received clearance to fly.

“I can give you complete assurance, 100 per cent, that [how much is charged per rescue] is not why we were successful.

“At no point did that play a factor in how we were able to conduct that mission.”

Doucet said he could not comment directly on how much International SOS charges for its rescue missions.

Roberto Álvarez, the foreign affairs minister of the Dominican Republic, said in an interview that there is no connection between whether organizations charge money for rescue missions and how quickly they receive approval from the ministry.

The delay in permits being granted is largely because of security checks that need to be done, he said.

Since the violence erupted, Álvarez said, about 500 people have received permission to fly from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

Police officers point their guns as they sit in a a vehicle.
Police officers point their guns during a confrontation with gangs near the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. Gang violence in the country has closed the city’s airport and left foreigners stranded amid increasing kidnappings and robberies. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

“Every day [they] wake up with [their] bags packed, waiting and waiting,” Tanya English said about her relative, who is still awaiting rescue from Project DYNAMO. “When you get that discouragement every single day, hoping that it’s going to happen, and then it doesn’t.”

Her relative says the roof of their home is riddled with bullet holes from nearby shootings, which could become a real problem once it rains. Food is also getting scarce, with her family member mainly eating out of cans, English said.

Every time they leave the house to get food, “they dash for it,” she said. “You never know when bullets are going to start flying.”

They are still awaiting a response from Global Affairs Canada on possible ways to leave the country. “At the worst time … everyone is just turning their backs,” she said.

Soldiers, along with military vehicles, stand near a runway at an airport.
Haitian soldiers gather near a runway at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport following a gunfight with armed gangs near the airport, as the government declared a state of emergency, in Port-au-Prince on March 4. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

In an interview from his home in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., on Friday, the day after he returned from Haiti, Rocheleau said he and his wife were finally able to get a good night’s sleep for the first time since the violence erupted.

While Rocheleau said he never felt in imminent danger in Haiti, worries were always at the back of his mind. Before the escape plan with the private company was approved, the 63-year-old said he thought of trekking through the mountains to escape as he sat in his hotel and listened to gunshots outside.

“I could tell there’s someone out there shooting at somebody … but you’re trapped,” he said. “It was like a prison, but a prisoner at least knows there’s a release date.”

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