'Bittersweet departure': 8 Canadian nurses arrive in Canada after flying out of Haiti

Eight Canadian nurses have arrived back in Canada after flying out of Haiti following days of violent anti-government protests in the Caribbean country.

The nurses, who volunteered at a compound in the Haitian city of Grand Goave, boarded an Air Canada flight from Port-au-Prince to Montreal on Monday afternoon. All eight arrived in Montreal on Monday evening and six from Ontario flew into Toronto early Tuesday.

Tracey Hotta, a resident of Thornhill in the Greater Toronto Area and one of the eight, said the nurses took a helicopter from the compound to the airport on Monday morning because protesters had blocked highways with burning tires.

"It is a bittersweet departure," Hotta said in a message to CBC Toronto.

She said the group was helping to provide health care to local residents but decided it was no longer safe to stay. The other nurses include two from Barrie, two from Ajax, one from Markham, one from Montreal and one from Truro, N.S.

Earlier, in an interview by telephone on Monday morning, Hotta said the nurses were very anxious before they were picked up by helicopter.

"I don't think anybody slept last night," she said. "The mood was a bit sombre last night. We hate to leave the Haitians in such despair, but we've done everything we can do and we'll come back."

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The group lay a Canadian flag on the ground in a field in the compound to let the helicopter pilot know where to land. The pilot failed to find the nurses the first time around but finally located them.

One nurse had to leave Haiti on Monday because she ran out of her medication, Hotta said.

"We are rallying around. We're still remaining as positive as we can. We will get out."

Haitian protesters have staged 11 days of demonstrations that at times have turned violent, and forced the closure of schools and businesses. Those taking to the streets have been calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse as they struggle to deal with skyrocketing inflation. 

Hotta said the nurses were working with Hope Grows Haiti, an Ontario-based charitable organization that aims to help orphaned and abandoned children in the country after the massive earthquake in 2010.

Submitted by Tracey Hotta

A GoFundMe page set up by relatives of the nurses raised more than $19,000 in three days to pay for the helicopter rental. Unused funds will go to the organization.

Hotta said it was difficult to be in Haiti amid the violent protests. The group did not have access to media reports, she said, and had to ration food, water and fuel.

"I will honestly say that we are now emotionally exhausted. If we don't get out today, I don't know what our state of mind is going to be," Hotta said.

"We're kind of in the dark as to what's going on."

The group was told that armed protesters and burning tires had blocked highways to the airport and it would be dangerous to try to reach the airport by car.

"You would have to pay them a large of amount to go through," Hotta said.

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Hotta said the lack of assistance from the Canadian government was disappointing. The Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince remains shut after closing last week due to the unrest.

"We were not really impressed with the support we got from Canada. They kind of just left us to fend for ourselves."

Ottawa following developments closely

Last Thursday, Global Affairs Canada advised against all travel to Haiti. 

"Canada is following developments in Haiti closely," the federal department said in a statement on Monday. 

"Our diplomats on the ground are in touch with their counterparts from other countries, as well as with local authorities, to share information and advice. Consular services are being provided to Canadian citizens in Haiti and we stand ready to provide assistance to Canadians who require it," it said.

"Canadian diplomats have assisted hundreds of Canadians leave Haiti via commercial means over the past weekend and we continue to support those requiring assistance."

Charline Ramgotra, a nurse in the group, said she had also been feeling anxious. 

"This day has been dragging. I don't think I'll feel comfortable until I'm on that Air Canada flight. We are all just anxiously standing around waiting."

As part of the mission, the nurses helped run a health-care clinic on the compound and a feeding program that provides meals to about 250 to 300 children daily. The compound also has a church and school.

Submitted by Tracey Hotta