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'Nobody's perfect,' Joly says of Afghan evacuation, as Tories question plaque

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa on Wednesday March 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says it was "a messy situation" trying to help Afghans escape the Taliban, as Conservatives questioned her department's decision to install a plaque commemorating the August 2021 airlift.

"I can't turn back the clock," Joly told the House of Commons immigration committee, where she was questioned about the government's chaotic attempts to bring thousands of people from Kabul to safety.

But a senior Global Affairs Canada official, Weldon Epp, told the committee the effort was made more difficult because Ottawa had fewer resources on the ground, given that Canada had decided to close its embassy earlier than some of its peers.

"Canada was in a different position than some of its allies," said Epp, the assistant deputy minister for Asia.

Their comments follow earlier testimony from senior soldiers who said the effort was hampered by a lack of preparedness and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to call a snap election. 

Canada's final commander in Kandahar during the Afghan war, retired Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner, previously testified that Canada's embassy staff left "embarrassingly way too fast."

He had said that's part of the reason "we only managed to pull out maybe about 15 to 17 per cent of those critical interpreters who soldiered alongside us."

Chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre previously testified that rules restricting government work during elections limited the Defence Department's ability to publicly communicate.

Still, Joly insisted Wednesday that all NATO countries struggled with evacuating Afghan nationals as the Taliban rapidly advanced.

"Nobody's perfect around this table, and I think we can always do a better job," Joly told MPs at the meeting on Wednesday.

Earlier this year, The Canadian Press reported that Ottawa plans to install a plaque commemorating the evacuation, based on documents obtained through an access-to-information request.

The plaque carries a $10,000 price tag and was approved in a July 2022 memorandum that critics argue will send the wrong message.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner asked who had proposed the plaque; bureaucrats said it came from within Global Affairs Canada.

Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe said his party had no problem with the plaque.

Opposition parties also argued Wednesday that the government has failed to learn from the evacuation.

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said he worries Canada would not be able to evacuate its own citizens from Hong Kong in a hypothetical event, such as if China imposed martial law.

He took umbrage with a government report last October that argued it had "an effective and efficient working relationship" between departments and the military, which he said contradicts the testimony of multiple witnesses.

Julie Sunday, the assistant deputy minister for emergency management at Global Affairs Canada, responded that her team managed well under the circumstances of the Taliban takeover. 

She said the Afghan evacuation prompted more queries than Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the repatriation of Canadians when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

"We had been of course contingency planning for a long period of time," she said of the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

Sunday said the demand was overwhelming, with 200 people working at the department's emergency response centre handling a peak of 70,000 emails in one day.

"One of the big challenges with this was the velocity that the crisis hit," Sunday said, adding that she couldn't speak for how quickly immigration officials work.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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