OTTAWA - Canada's aid and rescue effort in earthquake-ravaged Haiti is kicking into high gear, with the evacuation of scores of desperate people and the arrival of military transport planes packed with tons of supplies and a disaster response team.
The campaign ramped up amid the news that at least three Canadians are dead, five are missing - and more casualties are expected.
An Ontario nurse and a couple from Montreal are confirmed to be among the thousands of dead, while two RCMP officers and former Liberal MP Serge Marcil are among the missing.
A C-130 transport and a huge C-17 touched down in Port-Au-Prince today carrying a helicopter, emergency supplies and members of the military's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART.)
And a pair of Canadian warships loaded with personnel and supplies was also scheduled to leave port today.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said 100 Canadian evacuees were taken to the neighbouring Dominican Republic and are to arrive in Montreal tonight.
He said the Canadian Embassy - one of the few offices still functioning in the Haitian capital - has turned itself into a "base camp" for Canadians in need, and those seeking to leave the country. The embassy building has been evacuated as a safety precaution, but tents have been set up for people and medical help is being provided.
"The idea here is to make sure that within the compound, there is safe haven for people," Cannon said. "Those people who are injured, those people who are needing medical assistance, will be the first to leave.
"We are deeply saddened by reports of Canadian casualties as a result of the earthquake in Haiti. Unfortunately, the reality in the aftermath of the catastrophic events is that we expect more casualties to be reported as search-and-rescue operations unfold."
The embassy is also lending its office services to other foreign missions in Haiti, since so many embassies were destroyed.
A DART reconnaissance unit, along with a team of federal officials, have been in Haiti since Wednesday assessing what help and supplies are needed most.
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said Ottawa will match contributions in support of humanitarian and recovery efforts by individual Canadians to eligible charitable organizations between Jan. 12 and Feb. 12, up to a total of $50 million.
The Canadian International Development Agency will give the funds to Canadian and international humanitarian and development organizations.
The federal government has already committed an immediate $5 million in humanitarian assistance.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is in discussions with the Quebec government about how immigration rules could be eased to allow more Haitians into Canada quickly, Cannon said.
More than 100,000 people of Haitian descent, including Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, live in Canada. Most are in Quebec. Many have spent the last 36 hours worried about whether their loved ones are safe.
The lack of communications has frustrated efforts to determine the fate of up to 6,000 Canadians living in the Caribbean country. Many Haitian-Canadians have spent days trying fruitlessly to reach relatives.
Cannon consulted with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late Wednesday and he planned to talk to Brazil's foreign minister on Thursday. Brazil is the lead country in Haiti's UN mission.
Cannon was also to speak with the UN under-secretary general of peacekeeping operations.
"We agreed on the importance to build capacity and co-ordination on the ground in order to adequately respond to the crisis."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday that search and rescue is the first priority for Canadian military and aid teams.
While the exact number of quake casualties was unknown, the International Red Cross estimated that as many as three million Haitians - a third of the country's population - may need emergency aid. Thousands of buildings have been flattened, including the parliament, hospitals, a prison and the UN headquarters.
Hedi Annabi, the UN secretary general's special envoy, was among the more than 100 missing UN workers.
Most of Haiti's nine million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards.
The country is the largest recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas and the second largest in the world.
Foreign Affairs is urging Canadians worried about friends and family in Haiti to call its emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 1-800-387-3124 for assistance.
For updates, they can also check the Foreign Affairs website www.international.gc.ca/humanitarian-humanitaire/earthquake-seisme-h aiti.aspx.
Canadians in Haiti are urged to make their way to the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince.