What happened to our tsunami aid?
Garth Prtitchard, now a columnist with Canada Free Press, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker living in Alberta.
Given the lack of interest in a federal election over the revelations from Judge Gomery's inquiry, one wonders how Canadians will react when they learn that Ottawa is sitting on more than $400 million in tsunami relief.
The outpouring of compassion following the Dec. 26, 2004 disaster was unprecedented in Canadian history. This is a compassionate country, and Canadians gave from their pockets, piggy banks, and bank accounts. The Canadian media told them not to send blankets or food--send money. And they did.
On Jan. 3, Prime Minister Paul Martin committed his government to 'double up,' or match the $40 million collected up to that point. He also acknowledged that a reconnaissance team had recommended sending in the 200 soldier-strong Canadian military Disaster Assistance Relief Team, or DART.
I accompanied the Canadian DART to Kalumnai, Sri Lanka. The tragedy staggered us all. But when we witnessed the resilience and human spirit of the surviving Sri Lankans, we were absolutely committed to these beautiful and gentle people. The devastation was total. Parents lost children. Children lost parents. Three hundred metres of a city gone, 13,000 dead in Kalumnai's Ampara district alone.
The Canadians went to work immediately, producing drinking water, sending out their medical teams, doctors, nurses, medaids. They brought boats knowing that a huge bridge in their area had been knocked out.
But even before DART was deployed, its soldiers knew full well they were being set up by the bureaucrats in Ottawa to fail. The Minister of External Affairs claimed they were the "wrong people, the wrong place." Otta-wa's Canadian Press joined the attack immediately. "Paper tiger" said Terry Pedwell's story. "Antiquated" wrote Stephen Thorne. These are two senior CP reporters.
Back in Ottawa, the press conferences undermined the DART efforts. One in particular. held at the Ottawa Press Club, turned everyone's stomachs in Sri Lanka. The president of CARE Canada showed journalists a bucket, an eyedropper and chemicals. "I can produce clean water for 27 cents a litre." He called the Canadians in Sri Lanka "amateurs," a cheap shot dutifully parroted by the Ottawa Citizen.
Unlike Canada, there is very little infrastructure in cities like Kalumnai. Drinking water comes from groundwater wells, which at that time were choked with debris, garbage, sand, salt water and dead bodies. Chemical purification couldn't begin to purify the water in the quantities the residents of Kalumnai so desperately needed. The job fell to DART's industrial reverse-osmosis purifiers and the experts who knew how to keep them running. They produced 3.5 million litres of pure water. Canadian doctors saw 7,500 patients. One platoon, known affectionately to the Sri Lankans as the "boat people," ferried 70,000 Sri Lankans to and from markets.
But from the day they arrived, the Canadian DART members were stymied in their simplest requests for basic items such as tents, water pumps, parts for boat engines, and fibreglass to repair the Sri Lankan boats.
I was approached by angry and frustrated young Canadian soldiers asking me if I would donate some money, along with theirs, so they could buy parts for the 1960s motors they were working on.
They also asked me if I would take pictures of them giving their groundsheets to the people in a displaced persons' camp. I refused. I know from experience what would happen to their careers when the bureaucrats in Ottawa found out.
All 200 of us realized very quickly that the money promised on Jan. 3 by the Prime Minister of Canada was not going to arrive, even though the interest alone on the original $80 million would have accomplished miracles.
What we received instead were arrogant and nasty members of the non-governmental organization community, led by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The NGOs made it very clear that they did not like working with the military. This was not going to be a joint effort.
The DART asked CIDA for spark plugs, points, condensers, alternators and distributors to get the Sri Lankan fishermen back on the water. The answer from the CIDA representative: "I've sent a request to Ottawa."
Three and a half weeks into the Canadian mandate, a meagre $50,000 was released with great pomp. It probably represented two days' interest on the amount of money CIDA is sitting on.
Average Canadians donated their money to get tsunami victims immediate help, not years later. The Sri Lankans have been told by their own media that Canadians have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help them. Four months later the bureaucrats in Hull are playing God, not just with taxpayers' dollars, but with donated money that came with no strings attached--windfall for CIDA and its contractors.
Where is the $425 million? The NGOs and CIDA have an automatic response: "We're here for the long term." In other words, don't ask, because it's none of your business.
Meanwhile, the people of Sri Lanka are in exactly the same condition they were in one week after their lives were shattered by a wave 32 feet high travelling at 500 miles an hour. If you were among the millions of Canadians who donated to tsunami relief, aren't you curious about what happened to your money?