Canada’s Involvement in Haiti... before the earthquake?

In a country as geographically large as Canada, it takes a lot for Canadians to truly come together as one nation. Often, patriotism is revealed through a game of hockey, one of those Heritage Minute commercials, or a friendly round of America-bashing. More noteworthy, however, is Canada’s ability to unite in the face of a disaster. In 2004, an earthquake and tsunami occurred in the Indian Ocean, hitting Indonesia the hardest. Canada rallied together to give aid to Indonesia and other affected areas, and the Canadian Government committed $425 million to the cause.

Over the last month, Canadians have come together again as a nation to assist Haiti, a country in trouble after a massive earthquake. Inordinate numbers of people were killed, injured, and left homeless. Yet through it all, Canada has once again been painted a hero, sending hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to help in the tragedy.

But countries that are now rushing to assist Haiti post-earthquake are the same nations that have been giving Haitians grief for decades. A closer look at Haiti pre-earthquake shows that the country's current predicament is as bad as it is because of everything it was dealing with. Haiti had issues with poverty, political coups, and gangs – issues that were made all the worse by excessive foreign involvement.

Canada has been an integral part of Haiti, officially establishing diplomatic relations in 1954. It is only through speaking with people who have been to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, not as aid but instead as members of human rights delegations, that the entwined pictures of Haiti and Canada become increasingly clear – and it’s not the picture that we as Canadians necessarily want to see.

Stuart Hammond went down to Haiti as part of a human rights delegation, and arrived home just four days before the 7.0 earthquake hit the Caribbean country. It was his first time in Haiti, and he described the things that he saw as being “very useful for understanding the scope of the catastrophe, why things are so bad.”

He is a member of Haiti Solidarity BC, as well as a PhD student at Simon Fraser University. Earlier this year he spoke at a forum that Haiti Solidarity BC was hosting, where he detailed his experiences in his recent trip to Haiti.

Here in Canada we often treat Haiti like it’s a French country, and that’s actually very, very misleading – only maybe 15-20% speak French, the elite speak French very well,” he said. Haiti’s other official language is Creole.

While he was in Haiti, a country also referred to as the Pearl of the Antilles, he became good friends with a woman and her daughter, who lived in Cité-Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince-which received most of the damage from the earthquake.

Our delegation ... had gone up to the mountains in Pétionville to look down on Port-au-Prince,” said Hammond at the forum, “ [the family] came along with us, and it was their first time ... they had lived in the city their whole life and they’d never been able to go up there. [It] tells you something about how wealth is distributed in Haiti ... they’d never had the opportunity to see this part of their city. It really is something to think that they got to see this before their city was ripped apart.”

Poverty plays a huge role in Haiti, maintaining such a significant presence in part because of its complicated and colonized history. Originally, Haiti was a French colony. In 1804, however, African slaves overthrew the French and Haiti was declared a republic. France later would claim that Haiti had ‘stolen’ property from it, and demand money payments for the lost property. As a result, Haiti has constantly been in debt to European nations, only being relieved of it shortly after the earthquake. The United States of America also refused to acknowledge the new republic’s existence until 1862.

You can imagine for yourself, here’s Haiti, 1804, a powerful black slave army has just won independence from the European powers. Meanwhile, you have a new republic, not too far away, with its own slaves. You can think for yourself what the relations between the United States and Haiti would be,” said Hammond.

In the 1990s, there was a democracy movement called the Lavalas Political Organization. The popular movement supported investments in things like education and healthcare. It is led by a former Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. There were two political coups against this government, the first being in 1991 and the second, in 2004. In addition to American assistance, the 2004 coup also occurred with the help of Canada. Ever since then, the popular movement Lavalas has been forbidden from running in almost all of the elections. Hammond refers to Canada as a ‘junior partner’ in this coup.

Haiti has long been Canada’s largest foreign involvement-only recently falling second to the Afghan war. Hammond questioned why, despite such a significant level of involvement, Haiti was only appearing in most media outlets now, after the earthquake disaster.

The history of Haiti is not the sole contributor to the issue of Haitian poverty. Haiti does not have a lot of infrastructure, and the population of slums grows at an alarming rate. According to Hammond, part of this has to do with, oddly enough, foreign ‘aid’. For example, Californian rice may be sent to Haiti in the form of aid, but when it is just dumped in the country the local farmers are unable to compete. Daily wages range anywhere from $.75 to $2.00CDN a day, but, said Hammond, “The cost of living there is actually quite high; it is almost comparable to Canada.” There are many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Haiti working on projects, but an issue arises when NGOs are unwilling to work with grassroots organizations coming out of Haiti. It is important to remember that Canadians working in a Haitian NGO still get paid international-level wages, meaning donated money goes a shorter distance than if you work with Haitians at the grassroots level.

There is also a concern with gangs in Haiti. While Hammond was visiting the country, he had the opportunity to talk with some of the victims of raided areas, like Cité-Soleil. He shared a story about a woman he had met, who had been pregnant at the time of the gang raid. She was shot in the stomach, and likely the only reason she survived the gunshot was because of the baby. It is a “terrible, terrible situation,” said Hammond.

Canadians have a responsibility to Haiti, and it does not only come in the form of foreign aid. Gildan, an affluent clothing manufacturer, runs many sweatshops out of Haiti. Canada has been pouring funding into “democratic” elections in Haiti – but these elections do not allow the popular movement group to run. It seems strange that citizens of another country know Canada’s foreign involvement and our foreign policy better than we know it ourselves.

According to the Government of Canada, Canada is working to reduce the level of poverty in Haiti, specifically by focusing efforts on increasing access to health and education. They are trying to create a “more secure environment” in Haiti, by “helping to improve security throughout the country by deploying police officers, military personnel and corrections experts to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH),” says a portion of the Government’s website, dedicated to Canada’s efforts in Haiti. The website also says that Canada “is supporting the implementation of a responsible and effective political system.”

Elaine Brière, a documentary photographer/filmmaker of such documentaries as Bitter Paradise: the Sell-out of East Timor, called Haiti the “worst abuses of Capitalism. ... It’s like a refugee camp, [but] without the water”. There is no water except off of water trucks, and there is not enough diesel in the country to fuel the water trucks.

The Haitian people have an incredible resilience ... despite all that they have faced,” said Hammond.  The earthquake is not a disaster because it was a 7.0 on the Richter Scale. It is a disaster because of problems the Haitians have been dealing with for years, which have been made worse by unnecessary Canadian involvement.

Although many of the decisions to have a role in Haiti prior to the earthquake were made by the Canadian Government, the fact that Canadians have rallied together to raise money for Haiti demonstrates the enormous power of civilians.

Canada has taken a step in the right direction. It is important to realize the consequences of our decisions in the past, so that we can make responsible choices for a brighter future.

But as esteemed American psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, "I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness."

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// Samantha Thompson
assistant news editor

Our Priorities: Prosperity, Security, and Democratic Governance”

The Government of Canada states the following four goals are a result of our involvement in Haiti:

1) Better Living Conditions: “Efforts are particularly aimed at improving access to health and education services, and at developing basic infrastructure, such as roads, and electricity.”

2) A More Secure Environment: “Canada is playing a crucial role in reforming the police force and prison system, reducing violence in communities and enhancing border management.”

3) Sounder Democratic Structures: “Canada is helping strengthen Haiti's executive and legislative branches, public service and civil society so that each can play its rightful role in a modern nation. Canada is also working to strengthen electoral structures to ensure the success of future political transitions in the country.”

4)  Strengthened Rule of Law: “Canada is working with the Government of Haiti to strengthen and modernize Haiti's justice system so it can better protect the rights of all its citizens.”

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