It was too little and it was too late, but it inspired the federal government to create a rapid response unit, the Disaster Assistance Response Team, the DART, which was designed to do the job in the future.
The DART would be a military organization with an operational capability to go anywhere quickly to stabilize the aftermath of natural or human disaster and gain the time necessary for international humanitarian aid organizations to arrive and help with long-term recovery. By Canada Day, 1996, it was established.
Two years later, when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, the DART was sent to La Cieba, Honduras, chiefly to provide water and sanitation services. In August 1999, a 7.4 Richter earthquake hit the town of Serdivan, Turkey. Defence Minister Art Eggleton decided within 24 hours to deploy the DART and it was on the ground in a week. Among other things, it produced more than 2.5 million litres of potable water.
Today, the DART is said to have a reverse-osmosis water purification unit that can produce 100,000 litres a day. Most of the equipment is pre-positioned at CFB Trenton and, according to army PR, it is "a proven resource."
So when an even more massive earthquake in the Java Trench off Sumatra sent tsunamis across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean with catastrophic consequences for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Thailand and East Africa, a lot of Canadians were quick to ask: What happened to the DART?
After a week of suffering, an angry and impatient public compelled Prime Minister Paul Martin to authorize its deployment. Much more revealing of the real state of mind and the immediate instincts of the government of Canada, however, were the initial, pathetic excuses given by spokespersons for the Canadian Forces, for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for Foreign Affairs, and for the prime minister.
To understand the reasons for the delay, we have to remember that the prime minister was on holiday in Morocco. He could send only condolences but, he said, he "kept in touch" with other political leaders. The man has his priorities, after all.
Mr. Martin's first instructions to his bureaucrats were to promise a million dollars. This was upped to four million, and then to $40 million after Alberta, Ontario and B.C. had pledged more than the cheapskates in Ottawa. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan remained in Edmonton, quietly monitoring events. Finally, after more than a week, the government came up with a respectable number.
There was radio silence from Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew. When eventually tracked down and asked why he had not returned to his station, he sniffed, "we are not a banana republic," which meant that he could direct the nation's foreign affairs perfectly well by BlackBerry and cellphone from the highly congenial surroundings of a Parisian bistro.
By the time Aileen Carroll, who is notionally responsible for CIDA, returned to her post, she was so far out of the loop she had no clue how much money the feds had pledged. When corrected by the press,, she reiterated her mistaken information and then petulantly declared "it's my job to make announcements."
Meanwhile, her predecessor as minister of International Development (and equally light of weight), Maria Minna, objected strenuously to joining the United States, India, Japan and Australia in providing joint aid to suffering Asians. "I resent it," she said, because "we are coming across like we are joining an American coalition of the willing."
The defence minister, Bill Graham, did not shut Ms. Minna up. Since he had become the government point man by default, it was up to him to explain what happened to the DART.
As one spokesman for the Canadian Forces put it, "the DART is always on standby," which is probably the best explanation why the government was so reluctant to deploy. Mr. Graham's own explanations hid behind the regulations. No one had asked Canada to send the DART, and we do have to be asked, he said. It says so right here. Besides, part of Indonesia was not safe and the DART can go only into a "permissive environment," which means a quiet place. It says so right here.
When the 12-person recon unit recommended deployment -- after less than 24 hours on the ground -- Graham really couldn't say how long it would take to get to Asia. It all depended on how long it would take to rent the Soviet-era Antonov-124s to airlift the unit to the disaster zone.
His answer also meant that Canada couldn't quickly deploy the DART to the greatest disaster in recent history because the Canadian Forces can't get it there by themselves.
Of course, if Canada had purchased C-17 Globemaster strategic airlifters from Boeing, things might be different. The problem is, they cost money, and Canadian governments don't like to spend money on the Canadian Forces.
In short, Canada's inability to send the DART in a timely fashion to where it might actually do some good, live up to its name, and give Canadians reason to be proud of their country is just the latest consequence of the long-term downsizing and neglect of the Canadian Forces by successive governments.
Barry Cooper is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and director of the Alberta Policy Research Centre at The Fraser Institute in Calgary.