Operation HESTIA: Haiti Five Years Later

By Rick Leswick

Operation HESTIA was launched by the Canadian Armed Forces as a humanitarian response to an earthquake that devastated the impoverished country of Haiti on January 12, 2010. It was a massive effort that included other Canadian governmental agencies and the military component numbered approximately 2000 service personnel.

The earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and 200,000 persons on the island nation were killed. Another 300,000 were injured and the country’s already fragile infrastructure, including power and communications, were greatly damaged.

Canada was one of the first countries that sent assistance, and on January 13, Prime Minister Stephen Harper contacted United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders to initiate a response to the situation. He also initially pledged $5 million dollars to support the effort.

The government acted within hours of the spectacular earthquake and 85 experts from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), the Canada Border Services (CBSA), Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were deployed.

A joint Canada-Norway Red Cross Field Hospital was funded by CIDA and 10 Canadian medical staff volunteered. Accredited humanitarian groups that established themselves on the ground in Haiti were supported by 19 technical support persons from Canada.

But the greatest contribution to the relief effort was provided by officers and members of the Canadian Forces, as 2000 personnel were deployed. Operation HESTIA was good to go.

A Naval Task Group, under the command of Captain (N) Art McDonald set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia concurrent to an air component leaving Canada under the command of Colonel Scott Clancy. The hardware assembled for the mission was impressive, and included:  HMCS Athabaskan, with an on-board CH-124 Sea King helicopter; frigate HMCS Halifax; six CH-146 Griffon helicopters from 1 Wing Kingston squadrons; a CC-177 Globemaster; and a CC-130 Hercules aircraft.

Ground personnel included the tried-and-effective Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), supplied with three reverse osmosis water purification units, while search and rescue technicians (SAR Techs) and firefighters from across Canada made up the urban rescue and recovery team along with a detachment of military police.

The Land Force group, with personnel mostly from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, Quebec was also created. Soldiers were drawn from this base particularly because of their ability to speak French, the language of Haiti. Included in this group were the Task Force Headquarters Commander’s staff and a squadron of signals. The Royal 22nd Regiment provided a light infantry battalion made up of two rifle companies, one service support company, a headquarters company, and a field engineer unit. Combat service support was maintained by 5 Service Battalion.

The military, along with civilian aircrews, evacuated more than 4,000 Canadians from the ravaged country.

Loaded Remark

The operation was not without controversy. An article by Roger Annis, a writer and coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN), in the October 2010 edition of the Haïti Liberté, titled, “Exaggerated Claims: Assessing the Canadian Military’s Haiti Earthquake Response” is critical about the lack of medical aid that was provided during Op HESTIA. The article states: “HMCS Halifax provided no medical aid to the civilian population,” according to information Annis sourced to navy Commander Josée Kurtz, the then-captain of the Halifax.

Annis continues to write that DART was already onshore when the Halifax arrived, and that the Canadian Armed Forces provided no surgical assistance following the earthquake. Instead, Canada’s medical staff, working from a first-aid station, would refer serious cases to other facilities in the immediate region, or in Port-au-Prince. He describes the role of HMCS Halifax and her sister ship, Athabaskan as one that concentrated on providing security and order.

On March 12, 2010, Nova Scotia’s provincial newspaper, the Chronicle Herald reported: “Sailors didn’t take much aboard much in the way of relief aid — food packages, medical supplies or shelters — for distribution to Haitians.”

The newspaper also contradicted Stephen Harper’s claim that, “ships of the Atlantic Fleet were immediately ordered to Haiti from Halifax, loaded with relief supplies,” by reporting that personnel on the Halifax believed that the ship may have left with room to spare. “During the voyage some sailors wondered if the ships might have been better off staying in port a little longer — say 12 hours — to take on more relief supplies, food aid and medical equipment before sailing for Haiti.”

Stephen Maher, Ottawa Bureau reporter echoed the above sentiment, writing on March 12, 2010: “When HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax were ordered to sail on a humanitarian mission to Haiti on Jan 13, they worked through the night, passing boxes hand to hand, loading stores aboard the ships — everything they would need for the humanitarian mission.” He continued, “But sailors didn’t take much aboard in the way of relief aid — food packages, medical supplies or shelters — for distribution to Haitians.”

Opposition piles on

Stephen Harper was not only in journalists’ crosshairs, members of the opposition joined in the action. Jack Harris, NDP defence critic said, “It seems odd to me. They’ve been claiming all along that these vessels were bringing relief supplies.  Obviously there’s a serious error in communications with the public.”

The Liberals also jumped in, with then-Defence Critic Ujal Dosanjh commenting, “The prime minister may have inadvertently misspoken. I think he needs to clarify whether or not what he said was true.”

Defence Minister Peter McKay’s spokesman, Dan Dugas volleyed back claiming that the Navy did have relief supplies aboard. “I’ve asked the Navy this question and they came back and told me, ‘Halifax returned from sea, took off its Sea King (helicopter), and filled the ship with donations from locals, with tools, with equipment, with a doctor, with medical staff and equipment and water. Athabaskan was full of supplies, food aid and medical equipment before sailing for Haiti.”

Dosanjh appeared to divert any charges of mendacity away from Canadian Forces brass when he said, “These kinds of decisions aren’t military decisions. How soon to send something, these are political decisions that go up to ministers and ministers obviously have input or orders from Harper.” He continued, “They knew there was urgency, and we needed to get people there, but I think they may have been in too much haste in some instances.”

Dugas apparently half-agreed with the Liberal critic. “These ships left Halifax as quickly as possible, filled with relief, because of the pressing nature of the people of Haiti.”

But what was the need? Was it for relief aid or to establish what Commander Kurtz called “security and stability”? The senior naval officer synopsised the mission of the two navy ships at a conference organized by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia in late 2010, describing the ship’s work during their five month stay as, “[to] save lives, mitigate suffering and assist the onshore activities of Canadian and other police, military and aid agencies.”

Even HMCS Halifax’s departure from Haiti at the end of the mission created controversy. The March 23, 2010 Globe and Mail reported, “The mission took its mobile air traffic control equipment with it, along with the heavy lift equipment it had temporarily installed as the Jacmel port. To this day, Jacmel’s roads and neighbourhoods remain littered with rubble and most of the earthquake victims still live in deplorable conditions.”

Did the navy leave too early?  What about the ground forces from the Van Doos?

Beyond politics

At the beginning of Op HESTIA it was reported that the French-Canadian regiment was scheduled to leave Haiti by the end of March because they were to deploy for training to California. Five years later Colonel Scott Clancy, who commanded the air element of Op HESTIA, had a different view of the scope of Canadian military operations.

“Millions of pounds of aid was supplied to Port-au-Prince,” he said in a recent interview with Esprit de Corps. Although he had never previously been to Haiti, he was familiar with the ground and had provided briefings to five or six air components that had been engaged with other missions in that country.

He described the city of Port-au-Prince — designed for about 400,000 inhabitants — as being a city of four million. Even before the quake, the infrastructure was stretched to its limits and horrific poverty and corruption dominated the entire country.

After the quake, the Colonel said, “There was absolute devastation of the infrastructure, and 60% of the buildings were destroyed.” This damage was mainly due to the poor construction materials that Haitians used in their structures, including concrete that was made using too much sand and water to stretch limited resources.

“A similar earthquake happened in Chile while we were in Haiti,” the Colonel recalls. “Because the Chileans used earthquake-proof materials, there were less than 100 casualties there.”

Before the mission, Haiti had already been known as a strife-ridden country with appalling levels of violence, but Colonel Clancy found that reputation to be exaggerated. “I never felt threatened. The people were very welcoming of the Canadian military.”

Clancy’s mission was defined as providing “air and aviation support” to ease the suffering of the Haitian people. “That was the spirit I kept during the entire mission,” he remarked. “Our job was literally not to hand out aid to Haitians, but to support the people who were doing it.”

Although Clancy’s personnel were not directly engaged in distribution, he did describe the activity of the military. “We unloaded millions of pounds of cargo in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince. We were evacuating people and delivering aid all with the aim of easing the suffering of the Haitian people — that was foremost in our minds.”

The air commander did not want his men and women to return to their homes and tell friends and relatives that all they did was, “see the insides of tents and helicopters,” so he set up a unique program of personal humanitarian aid. “Every single one of our guys went outside the wire at least once and many went five, or six, or seven times to spend a day directly delivering some actual aid.”

The soldiers and airmen helped at a local orphanage cleaning up rubble and helping the local ministry. “I wanted to give my men and women something they could take back to their families and tell them of their experiences.”

He continues to receive email from some of the Haitians his soldiers helped, including the airport manager in Jacmel, who Clancy still mentors about terminal operations.

Clancy is aware of some of the negative press surrounding Op HESTIA, and when he was asked if he would have done anything differently five years ago he answers directly, “No. I would not change my approach to operations at all.”

Canada moves on

Five years after the end of Op HESTIA, questions remain about the government’s hasty preparation for the mission in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, but that has little to do with the exemplary work Canadian soldiers performed once their boots hit the ground.

By January 28, refugee camps were organized in Jacmel, and food was being delivered by the UN, protected by Canadian soldiers. On January 28, the first post-quake baby was born at the DART clinic, a field hospital set-up on a harbour pier.

Canadian military firefighters busily inspected buildings in Jacmel to determine the safety and structural integrity of those facilities. A clinic and tent city for the homeless was constructed on the beach. Soldiers monitored Jacmel-area orphanages that had been known to engage in the despicable act of child-trafficking.

Op HESTIA officially ended on April 1, 2010 as the last of the Canadian military members left the island of Haiti from the Port-au-Prince International Airport. Five years later, Haiti remains one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in the world. Concerns about the criminal diversion of monetary and other aid continue, and in January 2013, Canada’s then-Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino, announced that the government would review aid remittances over concerns about the use of those funds.

The 2000 Canadian Forces members who participated in Op HESTIA made a rapid and remarkable impact amid the devastation caused by an earthquake that killed over 200,000 unfortunate Haitians.

That the government may have not provided service personnel with proper aid supplies is troubling, but there is not a doubt that Canadian soldiers did their best under horrific conditions.  That must not be forgotten.