Helping the homeland

Montreal's Haitian community has come together to raise money for earthquake vicitims. Will the unity last?

The earthquake hit roughly 15 kilometres outside Port Au Prince just before five o’clock yesterday, just as the country was settling into another bustling, sweaty nightfall. Within a matter of hours of the disaster, 3000 kilometres away in Montreal, Haitian community organizers Will Prosper and Carla Beauvais had lined up some 30 celebrities to perform a concert on January 21 benefiting those affected by the earthquake.

Hours later, some good news: the city of Montreal had called, and said the group could likely broadcast the event live in its downtown open air theatre—meaning thousands more could watch the event. The event, Prosper believes, will raise at least $25,000, not counting corporate or other private donations.

“What I find amazing about this is that it’s often said that Haitians don’t have solidarity,” says Beauvais. “What this event shows is that, in difficult moments, we are capable of coming together. I’m surprised and incredibly touched by it.”

It was a familiar refrain today in Montreal, home to Canada’s largest Haitian community. With its mix of French-speaking elites and Creole-speaking masses, the roughly 100,000 Haitian Montrealers are in many ways a miniaturized version of Haiti itself—and everyone is reeling over the earthquake that struck presidential palaces and slums alike. “The first reaction here, amongst all Haitians, is how this simply can’t be possible,” said Serge Bouchereau, a veteran Haitian activist who has a cousin in Haiti he hasn’t yet been able to reach. “There is a sense of shock, anxiety and panic. Nobody knows where their loved ones are. They can’t even get in touch with them to find out if they are alive.”

The Haitian community in general has a habit of supporting the mother country at the best and worst of times. Every year, the Haitian Diaspora sends over $1 billion to Haiti–a figure equal to about nine per cent of Haiti’s GDP. In 2004, following the flooding of the city of Gonaives, Montreal’s Haitian radio station CPAM raised over $500,000 in a matter of days (unfortunately, most of the funds didn’t make it to Haiti, according to Le Devoir.) Though donation figures weren’t yet available for Quebec, a Red Cross representative told Maclean’s the organization has collected $1 million across Canada in less than 24 hours.

Yet many say this near-universal solidarity in the face of tragedy has only masked the schism between rich and poor Haitians in Montreal. It has existed since Haitians began arriving in Quebec in the early 1960s, in the midst of the Quiet Revolution when French speaking doctors, professors and members of the professional class were in high demand. Larger immigration followed, primed by Quebec’s policy favouring French-speaking immigrants.

Since then, the Haitian community has engaged in a protracted internal war of words, one that heats up whenever tragedy or political upheaval strikes the mother country. The ousting of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 divided the community into pro- and anti-coup camps, with the latter blaming the former for toadying to American and Canadian military might.

Yesterday’s earthquake is no different, at least according to Marie-Claire Jumelle, who singled out the largely pro-coup CPAM radio station. “They aren’t talking about the slums,” says Jumelle, a prominent Haitian activist. “They’re talking about the President’s official residence, but not about the poor, who are still stuck under concrete. There was huge damage in the [slum] neighbourhood of Bel Air, but we don’t hear anything about it.”

The divide amongst Montreal Haitians “isn’t as stark as it is in Haiti, but it’s present,” says journalist and author Yves Engler, whose 2006 book details Canada’s involvement in Haiti’s 2004 coup. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see a public split in solidarity in the next couple of weeks.”

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