Correction appended 22 January 2010.
One year since an earthquake killed 200,000 and left a million homeless in the island nation of Haiti, Sylvain Tremblay had an idea to use what he had to help.
Tremblay described watching news footage of the earthquake, and seeing that the vast majority of rubble was that of former homes. “I said to myself: You cannot pick up all the debris there by hand with wheelbarrows and manual shovels, it will take heavy machinery. Then as a result of reflecting on it all in that moment I decided to see if our expertise that we have in heavy machinery could be beneficial for the people of Haiti,” said Tremblay in French.
Tremblay is from the town of Mont-Laurier – a rural logging community in Quebec’s northwest – and is the director of the Centre de Formation Professionelle Mont-Laurier (CFPML), a heavy machinery operation training school. His centre is contributing to a project that seeks to train thirty Haitian-Montrealers to operate construction equipment, and then go to Haiti for three to six months to assist in the reconstruction effort.
A place to learn
Tremblay took his idea and went to the only person of Haitian descent he knew: Michel Adrien, Mont-Laurier’s Mayor. An important question was where the training program would take place.
Adrien, in turn, thought of the Haitian neighbourhoods of Montreal, and reached out to city councillors Frantz Benjamin, Frank Venneri, and Emmanuel Dubourg in the Viau, St. Michel, Parc Extension, and Villeray boroughs. The neighbourhood is home to 11,000 Montrealers of Haitian descent.
In collaboration with the City’s public workers, they picked the sprawling St. Michel quarry as the site of the program.
“We provided the place and the technical support to have the access to the location and everything else that is required,” said a spokesperson for councillor Frank Venneri. “It’s a site we’ve used to train our own employees on using certain new equipment so this was an ideal situation for them.”
Benjamin said he was “proud to welcome [the] project in St. Michel.”
In the weeks following last year’s earthquake, St. Michel’s borough government responded to the needs of it’s Haitian diaspora population quickly, opening a call centre to direct calls from concerned family members, as well as a multi-service aid centre.
Tremblay knew that it would be essential to involve members of the community, and had initial concerns that the program may attract those who wanted to learn to operate heavy machinery, but did not necessarily want to go to Haiti after their certification.
Nino Colavecchio, the spokesperson for Venneri, agreed. “For an arrondissement like our own there is constant demand for people who have that kind of training and it’s not easy to find,” she said.
The project – now christened the Heavy Machinery Training Project for the Haitian Diaspora living in Quebec – established a basic requirement: all applicants must be of Haitian background to participate in the training school. One-hundred twenty-five people applied, and out of the thirty accepted, most of them were born in Haiti.
Tremblay and Benjamin explain that the project has two aspirations: to help in the reconstruction of Haiti and to provide job skills for members of the Haitian community in Montreal. “One of the concerns we have in the Haitian community is what we can do to reinforce the capacity of the young people of the Haitian community to succeed at school and professional training,” Benjamin explained.
Mackelly Presumé, one of the thirty students in the project, spoke about his job prospects after the project.
“It’s a great opportunity for me in Montreal to actually work and contribute and to give back to the city for giving me this opportunity to have something that I would have never done,” he said.
“Having more young people of the Haitian community who have a professional training diploma, it’s something really good for the whole Haitian community and for Montreal.”
The Ministre de l’Éducation du Québec is funding the project through public money. However, as Tremblay discovered, there are limits to the funding available, describing the efforts to find continued funding as “door-to-door canvassing.” He has gotten some help from private industry, particularly John Deer and Komatsu, who have provided Tremblay’s CFPML with discount rental equipment. Tremblay’s biggest challenge, however, will be to find thirty placements in Haiti for the students who will complete their training on February 11.
For the past five months, the training has been a combination of classroom sessions, intensive 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. days in the quarry and, currently, workshops with other Montreal organizations with relevant experience in Haiti – notably, police and firefighters who went to Haiti shortly after last year’s earthquake.
At the quarry, students learned how to operate excavators, bulldozers, graters, loaders, off-road trucks, and backhoes.
Presumé said that he has learned how to build roads, transport raw materials, and work in “difficult areas.”
“We would build roads. We learned how to transport from one place to another, how to manipulate the machines to work in difficult areas,” he said.
Tony Armenio, a public worker with the City of Montreal in St. Michel, observed the project from afar.
“Everything they did [was] as if there was an actual earthquake, so they took some ruined pieces of cars and trucks and buried them under the stones. … Their goal is to open up the streets in Haiti, that’s what the practice was all about for them,” he said.
Ian Bellavance is a CFPML instructor from Mont-Laurier who worked with the students in the quarry.
“None of the students had ever operated [equipment like this]. This thirty came from different backgrounds. We had all sorts of people. The main goal for them is to help their family in Haiti,” he said in French. “I have never taught a group of students so motivated.”
“A lot of us lost people over there so that was one of the main motivations of the group as a whole. It’s like to give back for the people we lost,” Presumé explained.
“It was a really good experience and the group has a really good vibe. We would see each other early in the morning and feel happy and leave at five and still be happy. Time went by so fast…everybody had fun learning,” Presumé said, adding “It was great; something that I didn’t see enough in my life.”
“You cannot imagine how proud I am of my students; all the work they did, all the skills they learned, and [I am] very proud – maybe too much,” Bellavance laughed as he reflected on the training experience, “I know the end is coming.”
Tremblay told The Daily of the enormous positive reaction the CFPML received from the Haitian community after a media event hosted on December 21. Looking to the year ahead Tremblay is optimistic.
“If we succeed to put our students in action, yes, we can do a second group next year because the demand is there…that is undeniable. The people of Haitian descent truly want to help their fellow citizens.”
But there is still a long way to go for Haiti. Tremblay noted that there are many different factors, among them the upcoming February general elections.
“Following the results of the elections in Haiti, we will see if the political level there will make it possible to take more action because, actually, I think that [maintaining] the same Haitian politics will [result in] paralysis from instability,” he said.
Presumé contextualized the project in the larger goal of reconstruction.
“I think our project is just one of the small steps. I don’t think the impact is as big as we want it to be. We still do it and the impact that we are giving is good, we’re going to do our part. But it takes more than just the thirty of us to make a big change,” he said.
Correction: Nino Colavecchio was incorrectly referred to as Nina Colavecchio in the original publication of this article. The quote, “Having more young people of the Haitian community who have a professional training diploma, it’s something really good for the whole Haitian community and for Montreal,” was incorrectly attributed to Presumé. It was actually said by Benjamin. The Daily regrets the errors.