In the annals of suffering and sorrow, Haiti stands alone

Once again, the nation's faith, resilience and optimism are tested

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, January 17, 2010

Poor Haiti, in every sense of the word.

Poor Haiti, born out of slavery, but seldom free of despotism.

Poor Haiti, wracked by poverty, and overwhelmed by misery.

Poor Haiti, land of heartbreaking beauty and heart-rending disaster.

Poor Haiti, failed state, though not a failed nation.

Only a very resilient nation could survive two centuries of bad governance, and successive decades of natural disasters.

A state is a country, a geographic space. A nation is the people who inhabit that space.

Anyone who has ever been to Haiti can attest to the resilience, faith, and optimism of the nation. It is their country, time and again, that has let them down. And it is providence that, time and again, has tested the faith of one of the world's most Catholic nations.

Never more so than with the earthquake that tore into Port-au-Prince last Tuesday afternoon, leaving the capital and much of the island country in ruins, leaving uncounted thousands of dead in its wake. No one would be surprised if the death count surpassed the official estimate of 200,000, but then no one is counting, and no one can in a context where bodies are being collected by bulldozers.

For anyone who has been to Haiti, just the breaking news of a major earthquake in the Haitian capital was a terrible jolt.

The infrastructure of the country, such as it was, was sure to collapse under the stress of an earthquake that measured at least seven on the Richter scale, with the epicentre only several kilometres west of Port-au-Prince harbour.

And right on that waterfront: Cité Soleil, the poorest precinct in the hemisphere, a teeming tenement of tin shacks, with no water, no sanitation, no services of any kind.

The top of the hill in the capital, Pétionville, wasn't spared, either. The hotel and hospital in the city's one affluent neighbourhood collapsed. Elsewhere, so did the parliament and penitentiary, and other hospitals, while electricity was knocked out at the airport, meaning relief flights had to land on instruments on the one runway available to them. Meanwhile, the city's maritime port was also paralyzed, meaning there was no way for relief ships to get in even as ships. including two from the Canadian navy, set sail for Port-au-Prince.

Up to this point, this is a story of Haiti's tears, which has become one of sharing its grief, and coming to its rescue.

So how does the narrative of this disaster, probably the worst ever in the Western hemisphere, involve other countries, notably the U.S. and Canada?

And how do we come to the rescue, without making it all about us, especially in this country, at once so generous and so narcissistic?

Well, for once it is somewhat about us, at least as concerned relatives. For Haiti isn't just a country in the neighourhood, or even one in which Canada has influence, but one in which we have family. It begins with the governor-general, who weeps for her homeland, and includes some 100,000 Montrealers, the Haitian diaspora, renowned for its generous remittances to relatives at home.

We've all met them, the illiterate cab drivers and cleaning ladies of one generation whose children became university graduates in the next one. Both generations have been remarkably successful in the land of their adoption, but remain emotionally attached to their parental home.

The Canadian response to the Haitian catastrophe is an important test of our government's capacity to respond in logistical lift and relief, but equally in terms of compassion for the victims and empathy for Haitian-Canadian community.

So how is Canada doing in terms of rapid response? By all accounts, quite well.

Within 24 hours, on Stephen Harper's orders, Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team was in the air to Haiti. Within 48 hours the navy and heavy-lift C-17 cargo planes were deployed with supplies, returning to Montreal with more than 100 injured Canadians. Financial assistance was announced, with Ottawa matching private donations to recognized charities dollar for dollar up to $50 million.

This is only the beginning of an international effort, in which the Canadian contribution will be proportionate to our interests in and attachment to Haiti, not to mention the humanitarian impulses of citizens donating by phone or online.

It was probably constitutionally unprecedented for the prime minister to invite the governor-general to attend a cabinet level briefing on the day after the earthquake. The crown does not sit at the same table as the executive branch of government.

But in the circumstances, it was entirely appropriate. So was her news conference, in which her anguish was quite moving.

In the annals of suffering and sorrow, Haiti stands tragically alone.

 
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