Canada’s rapid-fire response to the rescue effort in Haiti is not only a shining example of its long-standing commitment to world aid, but also a vivid illustration of our close – and very personal – affiliation with one of the Western Hemisphere’s hardest-luck countries.
The tie starts at a very human level. Nearly 100,000 Canadians of Haitian descent live in the province of Quebec, mostly around Montreal, where their common language of French has made cultural adaptation a lot easier than getting used to the bitterly cold winters.
So deeply has the Haitian population woven itself into the Canadian mosaic that the beautiful and charismatic Michaelle Jean has risen from childhood poverty in the streets of Jacmel, Haiti’s fourth largest city, to become the current Governor General of Canada. As the vice-regal representative of the British Crown, she is nominally the most powerful person in Canada. This also makes Canada the only nation outside of Haiti with a Haitian-born head of state.
Canadians watched her tearful appeals in the early days after the earthquake and were moved to donate in unprecedented amounts, exceeding even the outpouring after the 2004 tsunami that destroyed large sections of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
Thankfully, the political response has matched the popular one. Canada has pledged $5 million in immediate aid and the government said it will match donations made by Canadians up to $50 million. On Monday, Quebec promised another $3 million in emergency relief. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was criticized for his government’s tepid response to the crisis in Lebanon in 2006, is receiving praise this time around. Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s Foreign Minister, kick-started the aid by hosting a teleconference Sunday afternoon, involving U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and several Latin American representatives, and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
“Our neighbour is in difficult circumstances and it’s like helping the next-door neighbour,” explained Cannon. “It’s all about solidarity.”
The military responds
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Peter MacKay on Sunday ordered the deployment of 1,000 soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec.
In addition, the military announced Monday that Canada’s DART – Disaster Assistance Response Team – would build full field hospitals and concentrate on infrastructure reconstruction and rebuilding communication systems.
The Canadian government also announced Saturday it is fast-tracking immigration applications and prioritizing Haitian adoptions to reunite families in Canada. It will expedite an estimated 5,000 immigration applications to reunite families in Canada with relatives “directly and significantly affected by the earthquake in Haiti,” MacKay said.
MacKay said another 1,000 Canadian troops are expected to arrive in Haiti this week.
Sharing a bond
In spite of the many differences between our two nations, there is a surprisingly deep bond, almost as though Haiti represents what Canada might have been if Lady Luck had dealt us a crueler hand.
It is true that Haiti is top of mind with Canadians because it is so close to one of our winter playgrounds – the much more prosperous Dominican Republic. But there is more serious business at work here.
Haiti is not just a southern neighbour; it has been the source of Canadian compassion by almost every measure, including the work of missionaries who were stationed in that country, and found themselves caught in the unfolding terror of the earthquake.
And, like several Latin American nations, Canada shares a common distrust of the elephant next door, the United States – the paternalistic and benevolent boss whose wrath you never want to incur by showing anything less than good-natured capitulation.
The US, after all, has shown little apparent conscience about deposing governments and sending troops into Haiti whenever it deemed that country’s course not to be in its interests. Most governments in the Western Hemisphere know that just such a fate is not inconceivable for them, either.
Nor is the horror of this natural disaster. And so, the outpouring of Canadian compassion and generosity is not just for the tortured people of Haiti, but also for all those who have been so fortunate as to have avoided a similar fate, by being born in a different place with a happier history.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.
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