Message sent: Canada minister arranges virus airlift by text

Canadians queuing outside their consulate in Lima, Peru on March 26. Some 8,000 Canadians have been returned home over virus fears in the country's largest repatriation ever (AFP Photo/Cris BOURONCLE)

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada's foreign minister used his thumbs to arrange an emergency airlift of weary Canadians from Peru during the pandemic, reaching out to his counterpart by text message to secure landing rights, he said Thursday.

It was part of what Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne described in an interview with AFP as "the largest repatriation of Canadian travelers abroad in Canada's history."

According to his office, some 8,000 Canadians so far have been brought home from more than 30 countries on over 40 government flights since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last month.

In numbers and complexity, the task he described was enormous, overcoming airport closure after airport closure, restrictions on flights and the movement of people, and in extreme cases situations where martial law had been declared.

"You know, basically, I had to negotiate the landing slots for our planes to land in Peru, I did that by text message, to be honest," he said.

"I said to my counterpart in Peru that we need to get our planes there and we started exchanging texts, so I got the dates and then I got the hours (for the flights) because now every plane that is leaving Peru has to leave from one military airport in Lima."

"This is by far the most challenging repatriation exercise that we have ever done."

Champagne also said he has been reaching out weekly to a "subgroup of G20 countries" to share lessons learned about the new coronavirus and how to slow its spread, "to advocate for airbridges that we had during the World War, to advocate for supply chains to remain open, for allowing transit and the repatriation of our citizens."

"Many of my colleagues were facing the same challenges with respect to their repatriations," he said.

"So in a world like that, Canada has been trying to express some leadership and trying to bring together people who don't normally work together."