First plane carrying Canada’s former Afghan staffers lands in Toronto

Canada has welcomed the first planeload of Afghan refugees who supported the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, but veterans and advocates say Ottawa has left them in the dark on its evacuation effort.

At a news conference on Thursday, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino refused to reveal details of the operations, not even the number of people on board the CC-177 Globemaster aircraft that landed Toronto the night before.

“We saw the early and concrete results of a special immigration program I announced just a little over 10 days ago,” he told reporters. “Our government is doing everything in its power to see this operation carried out as quickly and as safely as possible.”

On July 23, under tremendous pressure from the veteran community and advocates, Ottawa followed other allied forces’ lead and announced the resettlement program to bring home its former employees including translators, drivers, cleaners and cooks who risked their lives to support the Canadian mission during the war.

The Afghan civilians and their families have been targeted and deemed “infidels” by Taliban insurgents who are getting closer to taking over Afghanistan with the retreat of U.S. and NATO forces by Aug. 31.

Advocates said they were caught off guard by the arrival of the first Afghan refugee group and only learned about it through the media as none of the threatened interpreters and civilians they’ve diverted to safe houses were aware of the news or among those who arrived.

Retired lieutenant Dave Morrow, whose group is working with about 700 of the former Afghan employees and their families on the ground, believes the 40-plus people on board the first flight were only local embassy staff, support staff and their families.

“We’re just sniffing around for more details. We’re grabbing information from the videos and the photos that we’ve seen. Clearly, it wasn’t a full flight. So that begs the question, why wasn’t the plane full now?” said Morrow, a spokesperson for Afghan-Canadian Interpreters.

“We’re just asking for more transparency, like how many people? Who are they? Where are they landing? How many more flights are there? We don’t need to know all the tactical details for security reasons, obviously, but at least give us an idea.”

During the news conference, Mendicino was adamant about the need for confidentiality in order to protect the Canadian personnel and the local people still stranded in Afghanistan.

“Over the course of this operation, we will not be able to share the details of our work on the ground, lest it give any advantage to those who would hurt the people we are seeking to help,” said Mendicino, who also credited the veteran and advocacy groups for their support.

“We know there is still much more work to be done, and I know with more families arriving in the weeks ahead, the Canadians are up to the task. Our communities will band around them to give them the support that they need to thrive in their new home.”

Mendicino was repeatedly asked by reporters what the government is doing with the interpreters and other staff who worked for the Canadian government who are in hiding along with their families.

His response was: “For reasons that are entirely attributable to operational safety and security, we will not be commenting on the precise number of individuals that arrived … we just simply do not want to give any advantage to the Taliban or any other group that might seek to hurt those individuals that we are trying to bring to Canada.”

Mendicino was also asked about the heightened danger faced by the family members of the Afghans Ottawa resettled here under a previous program by the Conservatives that helped bring in 780 Afghan civilian staffers, their spouses and children between 2009 and 2011.

He maintained the new program is “flexible and inclusive” and refused to provide any update to the number of requests received so far under the new program.

Andrew Rusk of Not Left Behind, a group formed by the family of late Canadian Army Capt. Nichola Goddard, who was killed by the Taliban, said Ottawa’s handling of the Afghan resettlement is in sharp contrast to the White House, which welcomed its first group of 221 Afghans in Virginia last Friday under Operation Allies Refuge.

“The overwhelming majority of Afghans who need our help continue to remain in Afghanistan, and many continue waiting to be contacted by the Canadian government. We are continuing to see the downstream impact of the pandemonium created by the gap in the rollout of the (Canadian) government policy,” Rusk said.

“Compared with the transparency we’ve seen from the United States on their first arrival last week, it’s disappointing and it’s further contributing to the panic on the ground.”

Mendicino said the newly arrived Afghans, settled here as government-sponsored refugees, were vetted for security and tested for COVID-19 before departure. They are currently in quarantine in an unspecified location and will be matched with communities where they have families or already have support in place for schooling, housing, employment and language training.

“This isn’t just going to be a whole of government operation. This is going to take all Canadians,” he said. “What we have seen time and time again is that when the world calls on Canada to step up and to provide a safe harbour for the world’s most vulnerable, we answer.”

More to follow

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung