News | One Week Later

Montreal's Haitian community reacts to the earthquake

For the past week, Montreal’s 140,000-strong Haitian community has been mourning, and attempting to cope with new realities after last week’s devastating earthquake struck close to the centre of Haiti’s capital and largest city, Port-au-Prince.

The earthquake, which measured at 7.0 on the Richter scale, is thought to have killed as many as 200,000 people. Here in Montreal’s Haitian expatriate community, one of the largest in the world, community organizations have been reassessing the new and changing needs of their community, both here in Montreal and back home in Haiti. As increasingly disturbing reports come out of the Caribbean state, community leaders have reacted with grief, and in some cases, anger at the Canadian government’s response to the crisis.

Marjorie Villefranche, who has been director of St. Michel’s Maison d’Haïti since 1985, attempted to articulate the initial reaction of her community. “The first night, everyone was ‘freeze,’ because we didn’t want to believe it. And right now, I think we’re in a sadness phase,” she said in French. “Because we realize what’s happened, we see pictures, lots of pictures. And now it’s a deep sadness…and lots of worry.”

Immigration Canada has committed to “expediting” immigration requests from Haiti, but has declined to specify exactly what this will mean for those seeking refuge in Canada. According to a Monday press release from the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship, applicants will have to prove that they are “significantly and adversely affected by the situation [in Haiti].”

Villefranche criticized Immigration Canada for not going far enough in their actions. “The government hasn’t relaxed the rules. It has simply said that it’s going to accelerate the process,” she said. “They’re still asking for papers, DNA tests. In a country where people don’t have any address anymore, any papers anymore, where the only people who could [officially] recognize [these] things, the judges, are dead, what do you want them to do?”

Villefranche added that many of the necessary tests and identifications could be performed in Canada, where the necessary technologies and bureaucratic infrastructure are available.

Yves Engler, author of Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority and an organizer with the Canada Haiti Action Network, is another activist who has criticized Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney’s response to the refugee crisis. According to Engler, politics, rather than humanitarian concerns, are driving the government’s reaction.

“The Conservatives have an anti-immigrant base,” said Engler. “From their political standpoint, it’s a tricky situation, because their base is anti-immigrant, yet there is this horrendous human tragedy and any sort of humanely functioning government would…open the door more generally to Haitian immigrants.”

Merlaine Chrispin Brutus, director general of Entraide Bénévole Kouzin Kouzin’, an organization focused on children’s integration, illustrated the importance of the family unit that was threatened by last week’s earthquake. “No one asked the government to open the border for all Haitian refugees. That’s not what we want. People need to understand that. We ask for the reunification of families,” she said in French.

Brutus noted that the earthquake could have a profound impact on the fabric of the Haitian expatriate society. “It’s practically the loss of everything we had that was proof of our [material] culture…and so it tears out your heart to see your country completely devastated,” she said.

The City of Montreal has been quick in responding to the needs of Haitians both in the city and in Haiti. A mission of 34 police officers, doctors, nurses, and community representatives departed from Montreal early Wednesday morning – an operation that was scaled down from 100 personnel following a request from Foreign Affairs.

The borough of St. Michel is taking steps to open a call centre in an effort to better direct calls from concerned family members inquiring about services and information. The borough of Montreal-North has opened a multi-service aid centre to help its 11,000 residents of Haitian origin. “We’ve actually got the support of the City; they’re there with us,” said Villefranche.

Josette Jean-Pierre Rousseau, of the Point de ralliement des femmes d’origine haïtienne, an organization that provides resources to women of Haitian origin in Montreal, articulated the importance of women in Haitian society, and her hopes for a continuance of the presence of women’s groups there.

“We call [women] the poto-miton [pillar] of the country…from the perspective of the family, the economy, education. Often it’s women that are there at the base of the economy…so I don’t think that this is going to change anything,” Rousseau explained.

Rousseau also pointed to the difficulties faced by those structurally disadvantaged populations still on the ground in Haiti and women’s efforts to help them. “These people there, they can all see, they all have two feet, they have their legs, their arms, but the disabled and the blind? This is a country with 85,000 blind people because of water problems, air problems, pollution, and asbestos…. Often you’ll find a bunch of women getting together to bring [them] some help,” she said.

A conference about the reconstruction in Haiti is set to convene on January 25 in Montreal and will be attended by U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive, and French foreign affairs minister Bernard Kouchner.

Engler hoped that the conference would provide real change for Haiti, but remained skeptical of the aims of the leaders. “The hope is that they eliminate all of Haiti’s debt, that every bit of money that is put forward is in grants, not loans; that they prioritize building Haitian governmental and institutional capacity, not what some Canadian NGO wants. The hope is that they don’t use this as a disaster-capitalist move. But we’re definitely fearful that that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Engler, citing concerns about privatization of Haiti’s five remaining state-owned companies. “I would love to believe that the politics of Ottawa and Washington would change overnight, but [they won’t] unless we build something that forces it out.”

Community leaders remain hopeful that Haiti will be rebuilt in a way that will allow the country to retain its autonomy, and expressed gratitude toward the community responses in Montreal and Quebec at large.

“We are grateful to Quebec society and to Canadian society in general for the way these people have reacted to our people’s trouble – everyone. There’s not one Haitian who wouldn’t be thankful for this reaction, affectionate even,” said Brutus.

Rousseau also expressed deep appreciation, saying, “Thank you to the Canadian community, to the Quebec community, to the Montreal community, because we are feeling a powerlessness that keeps us from sleeping.”