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Aeroplan-funded flights bringing Ukrainians to Canada expected to begin in June

OTTAWA — The first free commercial flights to Canada for Ukrainian refugees offered through a fundraising drive involving Aeroplan points won't be available until June. On April 20, U.S.
A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., Monday, May 13, 2019. The first commercial flights offered free of charge to Ukrainians through fundraising using Aeroplan points and cash will not be available until June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA — The first free commercial flights to Canada for Ukrainian refugees offered through a fundraising drive involving Aeroplan points won't be available until June.

On April 20, U.S.-based organization Miles4Migrants said it had expected flights to begin as early as May using the new fund, a partnership between the charity, the Shapiro Foundation and Air Canada, which owns the Aeroplan loyalty program.

The program will now be up and running next month. 

Andy Freedman, co-founder and board member of Miles4Migrants, said the charity wanted to ensure everything is in order before the program begins. 

"We are on track to launch the program in early June, which is only a very slight delay," Freedman said. "We’re doing that to ensure that the operations of the process in place is set up for success."

The organization will help Ukrainians book commercial flights to Canada using donated funds or Aeroplan points on a first-come-first-served basis. 

The goal was to cover flights to bring at least 10,000 people fleeing from Russia's invasion in Ukraine who were approved to come to Canada, and the free travel initiative was announced a month ago by Ottawa, in partnership with Air Canada and two charities.

The spots are in addition to targeted chartered flights to bring Ukrainians to Canada, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this year.

While the funds already raised are ready to be used to book flights, there are still details to be finalized on providing direct support to Ukrainians with Miles4Migrants’ partners. 

That means ongoing co-ordination with other non-profits and the government to ensure people registered for flights are eligible, that they have somewhere to turn if the flight is cancelled and adequate support upon arrival.

"We don't want to launch a program where those pieces are not set up in place," said Freedman, whose organization has worked previously with Canadian non-profits and collaborated with resettlement efforts for Afghans with the U.S. government.

The Aeroplan points collection launched in collaboration with the Canadian government has collected more than 144 million points so far, according to Air Canada. The airline said that total includes its 100 million points donation announced on April 20.

The Shapiro Foundation, which is also part of the partnership, has pledged to match Aeroplan point donations up to 50 million points. Cash donations are also being collected by the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto.

The role of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in this initiative is to ensure that Ukrainian nationals have the necessary documentation, such as approval for the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel program.

The program provides access to three-year temporary residency for Ukrainians and their immediate family. According to the latest data, 104,553 people have been approved.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said many are requesting the program without knowing for sure whether they'll come to Canada or stay somewhere closer to Ukraine. The Miles4Migrants-led program is "complementary" to Canadian government charter flights to some of those who qualify for the program, she said, calling it a "two-pronged approach."

Thus far, three chartered flights with about 300 people each have been announced, due to arrive on May 23, May 29 and June 2. 

Opposition parties have said the two-pronged approach is ineffective and Ottawa should arrange more charter flights quickly.

“Already, Canada is not the most effective on the ground and they have found a kind of public-private solution where … there are still many questions and we do not have time to ask," said NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice. 

The Bloc Québécois also called for additional charter flights, with immigration critic Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe saying he felt the government tried to "buy time" by announcing the deal with the charities while doing “absolutely nothing” to ease the logistical burden.

"They're taking credit for a program that they have no role in and on top of that the program is still not in place," he said.

Fraser’s spokeswoman replied that "sometimes, things on the back end take longer to sort out, but it shouldn’t prevent us from being clear with the public about the kind of initiatives that we are undertaking."

The NDP, Bloc and Conservatives have reiterated their demand that all visa requirements for Ukrainians be lifted.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.

Émilie Bergeron, The Canadian Press