This article was originally published in August and was updated on Oct. 15.
While Canadian diplomatic operations in Afghanistan are still suspended, the government continues to work with its allies and non-government organizations to help interpreters and their families leave Afghanistan. As of Oct. 12, it was reported that 2,400 Afghans have arrived in Canada for resettlement, while an estimated 1,700 people destined for Canada are in safe houses across the country. In September, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau told the United Nations General Assembly Canada would increase its resettlement commitment to 40,000 Afghans, from 20,000. Many of those are refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries, and include women leaders, journalists, persecuted minorities and people who identify as LGBTQ. On Oct. 13, Scotiabank announced an additional $250,000 donation to support the efforts to relocate former Afghan interpreters and locally employed civilians and their families. The new donation will go to the Veterans Transition Network (VTN). Led by Canadian veterans with significant operational experience, VTN has been coordinating support for the care and evacuation of thousands of Afghan interpreters and civilians awaiting safe transport to Canada.
When the federal government announced a plan for resettlement in Canada for the interpreters and others who worked with the Canadian military and at the Embassy of Canada in Afghanistan, individuals, charities and organizations rallied to help.
Bob Bérubé, Vice-President, Operations at Scotiabank, Chair of the Scotiabank Veterans Network and a retired Lieutenant-Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who served in Afghanistan with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, was among those waiting to help.
In Afghanistan, as the Deputy Commander of Canada’s Special Operations Task Force, Bérubé’s role included ensuring their base camp functioned properly, and the Task Force relied heavily on local Afghans to fill roles ranging from cooks to mechanics and drivers. The Canadians couldn’t be certain there weren’t Taliban sympathisers among them but it was a risk they had to take, he says, and they knew that every day the Afghans returned to their homes, they and their families were in great danger.
Photo: Bob Bérubé, a retired Lieutenant-Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), during the UN mission to the Balkans in 1992.
Ahead of the federal government’s announcement, Bérubé and Paul Carroll, Director of Business Continuity and Operational Resilience, Global Banking and Markets, and Vice-Chair of the Scotiabank Veterans Network, had been working behind the scenes. Once Carroll, who was in touch with the military, heard an announcement was imminent, he reached out to Bérubé to set Scotiabank’s network and its charitable partners in motion to help in the resettlement.
As part of ScotiaRISE, Scotiabank pledged $250,000 to two Canadian organizations to provide settlement and integration support for Afghan families brought to safety in Canada. A portion of the donation went to Toronto-based Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services, which works with refugees and immigrants who often are experiencing war or persecution, to ensure they have a foundation for building a life in Canada. The remainder was given to True Patriot Love, a national foundation supporting CAF members, veterans, and their families. True Patriot Love established the Afghan Resettlement Fund, to be distributed nationally to support the resettlement of Afghan interpreters, locally employed people and their families with legal costs, housing, language training, mental health support, employment training and education, among other things. In addition, special newcomer banking advice and solutions to help set these families up for success will be provided through Scotiabank’s StartRight® program.
Having served in the Balkans, Africa and Jamaica, Bérubé says leaving Afghanistan felt different. With Canada leaving the war in 2014 and the Taliban intent on holding their ground, there was no conclusion. “We’re now seeing it unraveling. If we don’t do something to help those who helped us make it through our rotation alive, then that’s going to weigh on the collective psyche of all military personnel who were there.”
On his first mission in the Balkans with the Royal 22e Régiment, colloquially known as the Van Doos, he and a colleague were in negotiation with a Serbian military commander, after which the Serbians insisted the Canadians leave without their interpreter. After a quick conversation in French, the Canadian soldiers agreed among themselves that even if it meant fighting their way out of the room, they were taking the interpreter with them because they were in no doubt he would be killed, Bérubé says.
“What we did then is exactly what is at stake now in Afghanistan. We ask the military to put their lives on the line and we ask people in foreign nations to do so, on the premise we’re there to do good and that we won’t leave them behind.”
Carroll, who served in Afghanistan with Joint Task Force 2, knows first-hand how important interpreters were to the Canadian mission and to soldiers’ personal safety. Few people in the battle groups and special operations task forces were fluent in Dari or Pashto, he said, leaving it to the interpreters to listen to local chatter and warn the Canadians of ambushes. “Without them, our military objectives simply could not have been achieved, or if they were, it would have come at the cost of many more lives,” he says.
The interpreters he worked with have already come to Canada, but he fears for those remaining. “If my interpreters were still in Afghanistan and I heard that they or their families had been hurt or killed, that would cut to the quick.”
While Carroll is proud of his time in uniform and of the veteran community writ large for stepping up, he is also proud to be a Scotiabanker. “The fact that the Bank said, ‘yeah, how can we help?’ that gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s not a veteran issue, it’s a Canadian thing. The Bank lives up to its values of integrity and accountability,” he says.
Tom McGuire, Executive Vice President & Group Treasurer, Group Treasury, and Executive Sponsor of the Scotiabank Veterans Network agrees. “Supporting the resettlement of the Afghans who supported Canadian troops is an opportunity for the Bank to use its influence and financial resources to support a great cause that its employees can be proud of.”