OTTAWA — A total of 75 people connected to Canada finally made it out of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and more departures were planned for Wednesday, Ottawa confirmed, as the federal government worked to get hundreds of Canadians out of the besieged Palestinian territory.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced the successful passage of a first group of Canadians into Egypt on Tuesday morning in a video message from Tokyo, where she was meeting with her G7 counterparts to discuss the deadly month-old war between Israel and Hamas.
"I have good news to share, a bit of light in dark times," she said. "I know families and loved ones have been waiting anxiously. Finally, the first group of Canadians were evacuated out of Gaza."
By the end of the day, Global Affairs Canada confirmed that 75 Canadians, permanent residents and family members had crossed the Rafah border into Egypt — a passage out that countries including Canada have been demanding for weeks.
"Canada does not determine when or how many persons can cross each day," the department said in a late afternoon statement.
"As the situation is quite fluid and unpredictable, Canadians should be prepared for significant delays at the Rafah border."
It said Canadian officials were on the Egyptian side of the border to welcome those who are leaving and facilitate their transportation to Cairo.
Those who cross over are allowed to stay in Egypt for a maximum of three days.
The department had said in a statement on Monday that the Israeli military has assured Canada more than 400 of its citizens would be able to cross "in the coming days."
The breakthrough on Tuesday came after Canada had told citizens trapped Gaza they could be allowed out over the weekend, but attacks by Israel closed the Rafah crossing — the only way out for foreign nationals — until Monday.
The Gaza border authority evacuation list, as presented on a widely circulated Google spreadsheet, showed about 20 people listed as Canadian citizens were eligible to leave on Tuesday, along with another 60 people connected to Canada.
Global Affairs said Canadians who were on the "approved list for crossing" were contacted, and Canadian officials are reaching out directly to people on the list who did not cross on Tuesday.
The document also contains names of other foreign nationals who have been granted permission to leave, hailing from countries including France, the Philippines, Ukraine, Moldova, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday that while it is welcome news that the first Canadians have left, "there are hundreds to get out."
He pledged that his government would keep working "until all Canadians and their families are out of Gaza."
Defence Minister Bill Blair told reporters "it's not anticipated that the military will be required" to bring Canadians who escaped back to Ottawa, because "there are commercial flights available."
"There are a number of measures that have already been put in place by our consular officials there to provide the necessary support, shelter, food, accommodation, then assistance in arranging for transport home," he told reporters on Tuesday.
Blair said Canada is expecting those fleeing Gaza to pay for flights on their own, but he added that if people are unable to afford the cost, Global Affairs Canada can tap into what he described as "provisions" to assist them.
Canada sent military flights to Tel Aviv to help Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families leave Israel in the days following the surprise attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, which left 1,400 Israelis dead and saw another 240 people taken hostage.
Israel retaliated by launching a month-long bombing campaign, which the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says has left more than 10,000 people dead. It reports that more than 40 per cent of those killed have been children. Canada has listed Hamas as a terrorist entity for more than two decades.
Blair defended the decision not to provide military assistance to Canadians leaving the Palestinian territory even though it was provided to those fleeing Israel.
He said Air Canada had no longer been flying into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in the wake of the attacks, and that significant limits had been placed on the ability of commercial flights to operate.
Simply put, Blair said, Canada had not been asked to help with evacuation flights out of Egypt because commercial flights remained accessible.
Mansour Shouman, a Canadian in Gaza, said his wife and five children were on the evacuation list and received an email from Global Affairs overnight telling them they would be allowed to leave Gaza on Tuesday via the Rafah crossing.
Shouman, who was also on the list but is choosing to stay behind in Gaza, said he hugged his wife and children goodbye at a hospital in southern Gaza where he is taking shelter. They left for the border in a taxi, he said.
He said early Tuesday that he had last heard from them when they sent him a message saying they had arrived at the Rafah crossing, and while he believed they had made it across, he was still awaiting confirmation.
"Any father, any husband will definitely feel relief," said Shouman, an engineer who lived in Canada for more than a decade before he relocated to Gaza with his family three years ago.
Shouman said he didn't know yet where his family would go next, given the 72-hour clock on their stay in Egypt, adding they were "taking it day by day."
He said he made the decision to stay behind so he could help at the hospital.
"I believe it's a religious and humanitarian obligation for me to stay and … try to help out as much as I can the people here," he said. "We need to think about the 2.3 million other civilians here."
Shouman said his kids told him they want to return to him and live together in the Gaza Strip when the time is right.
International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters on Tuesday that Canada was "very much encouraged" by the fact the first group of Canadians were able to cross, and hoped more would continue to do so in the days ahead.
"I believe this will build the momentum to get the rest of them out, now that we've worked on the modalities to ensure safe passage."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press, Fakiha Baig in Toronto and Laura Osman in Ottawa.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press