Canada deployed a disaster assessment team to Turkey on Wednesday in the wake of a devastating earthquake that's killed thousands, as the federal government faced criticism that the window to help with rescue efforts was closing.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan announced the deployment of the Canadian Disaster Assessment Team on Wednesday evening. He said it consisted of military and Global Affairs officials and would determine how Canada can contribute to earthquake relief efforts.
A senior government official who spoke on background ahead of Sajjan's confirmation underscored that the deployment of the team does not automatically guarantee a further deployment of Canadian resources to the country.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which razed thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria on Monday, killed nearly 12,000 people and wounded thousands of others.
On Wednesday, Canada’s Turkish and Syrian communities were among those who warned that time was running out as local organizations sent teams abroad to assist with search and rescue efforts. Rescue workers from British Columbia were deployed in the quake zone early Thursday morning local time.
Sima Acan, president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations, said it's "very sad" that the Canadian government has not yet committed to sending any search and rescue teams abroad.
"Just hearing that Canada is ready to help but not doing any help and it's been over 60 hours (since the earthquake), it is very upsetting," said Acan, who spoke to The Canadian Press from Istanbul.
Acan said she is concerned that it is already too late for most of those still trapped under buildings.
"Probably we lost the majority of those people who were under those big tons of heavy blocks and every minute counts," she said. "We are losing them."
Marwa Khobieh, executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, said she was "disappointed" with the federal government's response to the disaster.
"By the hour, we're losing hundreds of people, and the more we wait, I would say, the worse the situation is," she said.
Rahul Singh, executive director of Toronto-based humanitarian aid organization GlobalMedic, said the absence of an official team to support relief efforts on the ground indicates that Canada is not doing enough to respond. The group's own teams were en route to Turkey on Wednesday.
"Canada's response is woefully inadequate and it's just a sign of bad governance. We have very poor government when it comes to foreign policy, and they have a horrific track record when it comes to disaster response," he said.
Canada's response to the disaster has come under fire as search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel in Syria and Turkey.
Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.
“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74 per cent, after 72 hours it is 22 per cent and by the fifth day it is six per cent.”
Ottawa has announced $10 million in aid and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that the federal government was still determining how best to help.
"From the very beginning we've been talking with our diplomatic staff, our counterparts over there, working with the international community on getting as much help as needed the right way," he said.
"We are there to help, we're just looking at how to best do it."
Trudeau announced the federal government would match funds donated to Canadian Red Cross relief efforts up to $10 million.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said late Tuesday that the federal government had not ruled out sending a Disaster Assistance Response Team to help with the recovery effort, but that it was working to figure out what would be most useful.
"All options are being considered. And from a defence perspective, we certainly are looking to (DART) as an option," she said.
The Canadian assessment team would recommend whether to send additional support, such as a DART, with a final decision to be made by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Canadian humanitarian aid workers were travelling to Turkey on Wednesday to help.
Volunteers from B.C.-based Burnaby Urban Search and Rescue, a team that has participated in earthquake rescue operations around the world, arrived in Turkey late Wednesday, the group announced on social media.
Turkey’s consul general in Vancouver, Taylan Tokmak, told The Canadian Press the team was being deployed in the quake zone early Thursday morning local time.
In Vancouver, donations for those affected by the earthquake poured into a warehouse on Tuesday, but a volunteer organizer said professional search and rescue personnel on the ground in the next 72 hours would make a more immediate impact.
"Time is our enemy at the moment," said Cansoy Gurocak.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume, Darryl Greer and The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.
Tyler Griffin and Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press