When disaster strikes abroad, Canadians are divided on who’s responsible for getting them home safe

Most look to government in situations like Nepal earthquake; onus shifts to individuals in other scenarios


When Canadians are stranded by some disaster abroad – such as the recent earthquake in Nepal – who should be responsible for getting them out?

Results of new public opinion polling from the Angus Reid Institute suggest a slim majority say government should be accountable in the case of the Nepal quake, but opinions change depending on the circumstances of other disasters, and on whether the stranded or afflicted live full time in Canada, or abroad.

Key Findings:

  • A majority of Canadians (56%) say responsibility for evacuating Canadians from something like the Nepal earthquake should lie entirely (43%) or mostly (13%) with government.
  • This changes markedly if the scenario involves Canadians stranded in a conflict zone or an area with a high risk advisory: only 23 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively, consider evacuation in these scenarios to be the Canadian government’s responsibility.
  • When Canadians are evacuated from a disaster area, 38 per cent believe they should have to pay for a portion of their rescue. Those who’ve traveled abroad extensively are twice as likely as other respondents to say evacuees should pay the entire cost of their rescue.

Angus Reid Institute

Who’s responsible for getting Canadians out?

When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, there were 462 Canadians registered with the embassy in Nepal. The actual number of Canadians on the ground was likely greater, because registration is voluntary.

Asked about the overall responsibility for the evacuation of Canadians during a natural disaster, such as the Nepal earthquake, more than half of Canadians surveyed (56%) told the Angus Reid Institute Ottawa should take the lead on evacuation, with two-in-five respondents (43%) saying it should entirely fall to government and 13 per cent saying “mostly government”.

Angus Reid Institute

Different scenarios yield different responses

The Canadian government has no official policy on whether it will evacuate its citizens from other countries during times of crisis. In 2006, it was criticized heavily for spending $100 million to evacuate Canadians from the conflict in Lebanon, many of whom went back as soon as violence there subsided. For context: Canadians stuck in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina a year earlier had received no such help.

Canadians are less likely to place responsibility for evacuating citizens on the government when presented with some other specific scenarios in the survey:

  • Only 16 per cent pointed to government as responsible for “Canadians who have travelled to a country considered to be high risk.”
  • Not many more (23%) said government (13%) or “mostly government” (10%) should be responsible for evacuating “Canadians who have travelled to a known conflict zone that then heats up.”
  • Roughly one-quarter (28%) of Canadians feel it is government’s responsibility to evacuate “Canadians who travel to a very remote place (such as Antarctica or the Maldives).”
  • Notably, Canadians do feel government should be responsible for evacuating “Canadians travelling in Europe if a serious terrorist incident occurs”. In this scenario, a total of two-in-three (64%) Canadians pointed to the government (40% government, 24% mostly government).

Regional and demographic differences in opinion arise. On the question regarding the Nepal earthquake specifically, Quebec residents (64%) were especially inclined to choose “government” or “mostly government” as responsible for rescue. By contrast, less than half of Albertans (49%) chose one of the two “government” options.

In all other evacuation scenarios, Atlantic Canadians were more often inclined to say it is the individual’s responsibility. This was especially true in the case of a terrorist attack in Europe, where more than a third (36%) place the responsibility on the individual, compared to less than 30 per cent in all other jurisdictions except Alberta (31%).

Those living abroad viewed differently

Canadian opinion appears less convinced that government responsibility (where one is perceived) extends to citizens living long-term outside of Canada. A 2011 report by the Asia Pacific Foundation estimated that there are roughly 2.8 million Canadians living outside of Canada, more than a million of whom live in the U.S.

More than half (55%) of those surveyed agreed that “if you aren’t living in Canada, you can’t expect the same help from the Canadian government” during a disaster such as the earthquake in Nepal. One-third (31%) say “any Canadian citizen should receive the same help whether they live in Canada or not”. The rest (14%) were unsure.

Angus Reid Institute

Who should pay for evacuations?

As for who pays to lift stranded Canadians out of a disaster or danger zone, roughly two-in-five (38%) surveyed say the rescued should have to cover a portion of the costs, twice as many as those who say none at all (19%). One-in-ten (10%) told the Angus Reid Institute stranded Canadians should have to cover all costs.

A significant number – 30 per cent – say the answer to who should pay for the evacuation of Canadians “depends” on the specific situation from which they’re being evacuated, or on other factors.

Angus Reid Institute

Canadians satisfied with international aid response in Nepal

The Canadian government has pledged $5 million to help with the relief effort in Nepal and agreed to match Canadians’ donations to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund dollar-for-dollar until May 25.

Canada also mobilized a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and a Medical Assistance Team (CMAT) to Kathmandu.

Asked for their overall appraisal of their government’s response in Nepal, a large majority of Canadians (71%) believe it’s been “about right.” Of those who felt otherwise, 21 per cent said “too little” has been done, leaving fewer than one-in-ten (8%) who said Canada has done “too much” responding to Nepal.

Angus Reid Institute

Nearly half of Canadians (47%) say Canada should always respond to natural disasters in other countries, regardless of the circumstances, and only a tiny minority (3%) say Canada should never help.

The rest see some potentially mitigating circumstances. Given the opportunity to choose up to three considerations Canada should weigh when deciding whether to respond to a natural disaster in another country:

  • One-third (33%) say Canada’s own economic health should influence the government’s response to such disasters. Younger people (40% of those ages 18 to 34) and Saskatchewan residents (45%) were particularly inclined to say this.
  • Roughly one-in-five (23%) said Canada should consider “whether the affected country is developing and has infrastructure and related challenges.”
  • Slightly fewer respondents (18%) chose “whether the affected country is an ally of Canada’s” as a factor that should influence the government’s response.

Angus Reid Institute

Overall, opinion is divided on what Canada’s goal should be when responding to disasters abroad. Half (51%) say the government’s priority should be contributing to general relief efforts, while a large number (41%) would instead put the priority on getting Canadians out of the affected region. Eight per cent of respondents chose “neither.”

Little difference in opinion between travelers and non-travelers

The survey also asked about Canadians’ travel outside of Canada and the United States. Interestingly, responses from Canadians who have travelled abroad or had family members travel abroad in the last five years did not differ significantly from those of Canadians who have stayed put in North America.

In general, those who had traveled abroad for an extended period of time (more than a month) in the last five years were slightly more likely than the general population to say evacuation was an individual’s responsibility, though in most cases this difference was not statistically significant.

The one question on which this group had a notably different opinion than the rest of the population was that regarding who should pay for the rescue of Canadians stranded abroad by disasters. Perhaps surprisingly, 21 per cent of those who had traveled abroad for an extended period said evacuees should have to pay for the entire cost of their rescue, compared to just 10 per cent of the overall population who chose this response.

Click here for full report including tables and methodology

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey

Click here for our Disaster Response infographic

Image Credit: Debris2008

Posted May 8, 2015

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