For many Montrealers, CPAM 1610 felt like ground zero in the days and weeks following the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. People crowded into the French-language Haitian radio station’s small office, weeping and trying to contact relatives and friends back home. Journalist and producer Pierre Michel Bolivard recalls, “All we could do was comfort them.”
CPAM’s offices are situated in the far reaches of northeastern Montreal, at the grey, industrialized intersection of Jarry E. and 19th Avenue. The station rents second floor space in a complex shared with a Cambodian grocery store, a Szechuan restaurant, and a consultant’s office for immigrants.
Bolivard described the station as “a bridgehead” between those in Haiti, Haitians in Montreal, and the Canadian media, amid the community’s grief and panic following the earthquake. In the station’s empty boardroom, he described the helplessness he and his listeners felt as images of the earthquake’s destruction came in. The only way to reach Haiti in the chaos following the earthquake was via satellite phone, but Bolivard and his staff had none – images kept coming in, but communication was impossible.
CPAM was one of the first media outlets in Montreal to report the news of the earthquake. “I was doing my show,” said Bolivard, “and people started calling in, saying something serious had happened.” The station responded with intensive coverage of the disaster relief efforts, going into what they called “earthquake mode.” Everything from news coverage to call-in shows was changed in response to the gravity of the moment.
More than a month after the earthquake, Serge César’s eight p.m. news show Regard still dedicates about the first half an hour of its programming to news from Haiti, mostly regarding the after-effects of the earthquake. The show has featured news wire material about visits from world leaders, like Stephen Harper and Nicolas Sarkozy, but also small-scale local news about life in Haiti. Much of it was grim, disturbing.
On February 15, six bandits had been arrested for possession of illegal weapons, armed robbery, and rape; Later, a story came on about an 11-year-old girl who had been murdered while playing with a young boy in the makeshift tents in which many Haitians are living. “All a tragedy,” César said. Matter-of-fact, even buoyant for much of the broadcast, his voice changed noticeably while reporting on the murdered girl.
The station’s web site, cpam1610.com, has a rotating bulletin of missing persons, with contact information for people and news of their whereabouts. The Haitian names – Maico Mandley Ledoux, Judel Wige Cherry, Francoise Francois, a whole family of Gastons – flash a little too quickly. There is a cast of around a dozen at the moment. Another heading, “Mobilisation sur le Web,” has links to online charities.
Even the music has changed in the station’s transformation into a hub for information and solace. During “Bouquet de Rose,” a prettily-titled nine p.m. broadcast described on the web site as “tender music,” an impassioned rap song about consoling Haiti was played the other day, more wrenching than tender.
The office’s décor evidences the seriousness with which it approaches its role in Montreal’s Haitian community. There is a map of Haiti in the foyer, and one of the station’s walls features a framed picture gallery of every head of the Haitian state since independence in 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first emperor of Haiti, is present in dramatic Napoleonic military dress, as are the corrupt, autocratic Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, who ruled Haiti from 1956-1986. A studio named after the hero of South American independence, Simon Bolivar, is a nod to regional history, or maybe just to CPAM 1610’s own Bolivard.
A seasoned journalist and producer, Bolivard hosts a two-hour Haitian music program at 10 a.m. on weekdays, as well as an afternoon chat show with co-host Sophie Stanké. He is serious about the future of Haiti, and has a wonkish grasp of policy and figures. He pointed out that 85 per cent of cars in Haiti are Japanese-made, which leads him to suggest that some of those Japanese cars be assembled in Haitian plants. Criticizing aid regimes, he pointed to Canada’s use of Canadian contractors to build Haitian infrastructure, which denies local business a significant opportunity for development – “If you give a man fish everyday, he isn’t going to eat. You have to teach a man to fish.”
As Bolivard continued his tour of the office, signs began to emerge that a normal life – pre-earthquake life – still went on. There were incongruities of design – a childish painting, which Bolivard decided was not of Haiti but of somewhere in Asia, leaned against the boardroom wall, along with a grinning picture of Barack Obama, taken at a time when his hair was thicker and darker. And commercials still lead in to the crushing news from Haiti. “You can find all the products of Haiti and the Caribbean at Marche Cascoute,” runs one, in French.
The earthquake hasn’t robbed Bolivard of his sense of humour, either. Showing off a dark, cluttered equipment room, Bolivard joked that this was “our Ali Baba’s cave.” He also mentioned, laughing, that his co-host Sophie is “the only white person working here.”
Of course, things aren’t normal, nor will they be for a long time. Bolivard told me that everyone he knew “was touched in one way or another” by the earthquake. For his part, most of his family was hundreds of kilometres away from Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. But the capital of his homeland, which he left 20 years ago, is destroyed. “My image of Port-au-Prince has disappeared forever,” Bolivard said.
He described the difficult balancing act between returning to normalcy and capturing the dire tone of the disaster. “Since January 12, we have been trying to put things back in their place, but gently. If we tried to do it quickly, people wouldn’t have accepted it.” Conditions in Haiti are still desperate, and many believe the Préval government has been unfocused, even inept, in responding to the crisis. “We can’t always be rosy about what’s happening there,” says Bolivard.
An important thread of optimism running through CPAM 1610 is the resilience and growing strength of the Haitian diaspora. There are nearly 100,000 Haitians living in Montreal alone. “We are becoming trained and educated,” said Bolivard of his fellow emigrants. Remittances from Haitians abroad amount to $2.5 billion dollars a year, he continued. In other words, there is hope yet.
CPAM 1610, for its part, is planning a move. The offices at Jarry and 19th are cramped, and look frayed and tired. The transmitter that pumps out the station’s signal uses 1,000 watts, which Bolivard noted with some chagrin. The transmitter at the new office, however, will use 10,000 watts; he rarely passed up an opportunity to say so. That means that before long the range of CPAM’s signal will be 10 times as wide as it is now.
The move is scheduled for “sometime this year,” although it is a big job and delays are inevitable. Bolivard points out that the huge transmitter (a monolithic black box, like the one in the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the antennae from the roof have to be moved. The new office will be on the Rive Sud, miles away from their current location in Montreal Nord. “It will take a lot of money,” says Bolivard. Still, he is optimistic about the move and its attendant upgrades. And with well over a month since the earthquake shook the station’s world, CPAM 1610 looks up to the task.