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As Haiti Suffers, Canada Prepares To Step Into The Breach

January 17, 2010
Haitian Red Cross volunteer Miname Glaude holds Michel Laurent (15 months) at a Red Cross medical center in Croix de Priez

Haitian Red Cross volunteer Miname Glaude holds Michel Laurent in Croix de Priez. CC-licensed image courtesy Flickr user 'IFRC'.

Haiti is a country that has seen more than its share of misery over the past couple of centuries, and the major earthquake that struck last Tuesday is simply the latest entry in a very long catalogue. As the CBC helpfully explains, the earthquake was so devastating because of its large magnitude (7.0 on the Richter scale), because the epicentre was close to the capital city of Port-au-Prince and at a relatively shallow depth within the Earth’s crust, and because so many of the buildings in Port-au-Prince are made of concrete and not earthquake-resistant in the least.

The consequences have been deadly. According to Haiti’s Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, some 50,000 bodies have already been recovered, and the total death toll may be as high as 200,000. In some areas half the buildings are damaged or destroyed. Aid is slowly being distributed, but in the meantime the atmosphere is one of desperation:

Groups of men with machetes have been roaming the ruins seeking supplies of food or water. Corpses have been used as roadblocks, singalling [sic] that the mood in the capital is near breaking point after four days of apocalyptic scenes. “They are scavenging everything. What can you do?” Michel Legros, 53, told AP as he waited for help to search for seven relatives buried in his collapsed house.

The earthquake also marks the beginning of a new chapter in Canada’s relationship with Haiti, which in recent years has been closer than many Canadians perhaps realise. Apart from our Haitian Governor General and the 100,000-strong Haitian community in Canada, the country has recently been second only to Afghanistan as a recipient of our foreign aid. We briefly sent troops to Haiti in 2004, to help maintain order after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced out of the country, and Canadians continue to assist the government in various capacities. Eight Canadians are now known to have died in the earthquake, including two RCMP officers, a nurse, two CIDA workers, two university professors, and one professor’s wife. More than 1,300 Canadians in Haiti are presently unaccounted for.

Canada has already joined the international effort to provide relief to Haiti, and is poised to deploy some 800 peacekeepers, presumably to help restrain those machete-wielding scavengers and other potential threats to public safety. As we charge into the breach, it occurs to me that our shiny new peacekeeping mission in Haiti will be like our gritty old counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan in one crucial respect – the need for a clear, realistic idea of what our military and civilian personnel are actually supposed to accomplish. Are we providing short-term assistance to victims of the earthquake? Laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive attempt to rebuild Haiti, like the “Marshall Plan” envisaged by Paul Collier and Jean-Louis Warnholz in the Globe and Mail? Protecting Canadians in Haiti, and perhaps the economic interests of Canada and its allies?

My own feeling is that we should stick to some combination of providing short-term assistance and protecting our own, and largely stay away from Marshall Plans. The international relief effort, as so often happens, is already beginning to seem rather self-righteous and overbearing: the US military, for instance, has taken control of the international airport in Port-au-Prince. I suspect that an extensive reconstruction programme designed and implemented by foreign powers, and inevitably reflecting their own prejudices and priorities, is the last thing Haiti will need in the coming months and years. After all, the history of external involvement in Haiti, from French colonisation right up to America’s (and perhaps Canada’s) apparent complicity in Aristide’s departure, has been almost uniformly grim. And the last thing Canada will need, as we prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, is a new extensive foreign entanglement in a country of limited strategic importance.

As is usual with natural disasters, the earthquake has inspired a range of theological and philosophical ruminations. The most colourful and deranged of these has probably been American evangelist Pat Robertson’s already-infamous suggestion that the earthquake resulted from a curse that has supposedly been afflicting the Haitians ever since they made a pact with Satan during their war of independence.

Rather more poignant was a question posed in the Toronto Star:

That this should happen at a time when the presidency of René Préval, by far the most stable and sensible the country has ever had, had provided a semblance of stability and, yes, even hope, to the long-suffering Haitian people seems perverse. Does Mother Nature not have some sense of fairness?

As an atheist, I can only answer: no, none whatsoever. Given enough time, Mother Nature is going to kill us all and reduce our civilisations to dust. Perhaps, just before the end, machetes and roadblocks made of corpses will be the order of the day pretty much everywhere.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    January 31, 2010 1:16 pm

    I take issue with some of your wording regarding “machete-wielding scavengers.” From almost day one of the earthquake crisis, the international media (primarily North American media) focused on a few small, isolated acts of looting and mayhem taking place in the city streets of Port Au Prince, rather than focusing their attentions on the incredible need of the Haitian people as well as the daily acts of courage, survival, and kindness occurring in the face of overwhelming devastation and death. The same thing happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where angry, hungry, and sad black men were shown roaming the city streets, taking whatever food or clothing they could find. I am of the opinion that the media’s, and therefore the international community’s, focus on these small acts of violence stems from racism, and is used to justify the militarization of relief. Haiti and New Orleans are portrayed as pictures of mayhem, with wild, barbaric black people crying and wailing and stealing and beating. When an earthquake struck China, did we see the same? According to this reporting and logic, both situations necessitate a strong North American military presence. I disagree with both the out-of-proportion portrayls of such small, isolated acts, as well as the overwhelming presence of Canadian and U.S. military on the small island. Why did Canada need to send 800 so-called “peacekeepers”? Why not 800 skilled doctors and surgeons and nurses instead? Both governments’ efforts, in this regard, have been misplaced and are potentially harmful, and I, for one, am not going to watch silently as we invade Haiti yet again. It is racist, and it is wrong.

    For another article on our perception of looting, please visit

    • nmboudin permalink*
      February 1, 2010 7:11 am

      I think there is a misconception that armies are synonymous with oppression and violence. Though this is the case often enough, armies at their best are also highly efficient and well organized teams of professionals that are trained and experienced at working in highly stressful and chaotic situations.

      In addition to peacekeeping, the army can build field hospitals, runways, infrastructure, keep order for supply distribution, search and rescue and so on. The skilled doctors and nurses are there and are continuing to arrive, but they have had to perform “Civil War medicine” due to a lack of infrastructure. And that is exactly the kind of thing an army can help with.

      This is no invasion. What would be the object of an invasion of Haiti?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      February 3, 2010 4:24 am

      I think it’s more sensationalism than racism, but yes, the focus on acts of violence and looting seems excessive sometimes. However, the violence is real enough, even if it’s more localised and on a smaller scale than you would think from following the media. In my opinion it’s an aspect of the situation that deserves to be reported. I also think it would be naive to send in supplies and civilian personnel without security measures of some kind in place. On the other hand, overdoing the military side of the relief effort (and I wouldn’t disagree that this has been the case so far) squanders resources and needlessly intimidates and alienates the local population. It’s really a matter of finding the appropriate balance.

      Also, as Nick said, the military can do a lot of things besides provide security. During the Sichuan earthquake in China the need for foreign military help was very limited mainly because China had its own resources – the People’s Liberation Army was front and centre in the rescue effort. Haiti, on the other hand, was not in a position to do much on its own.

      With all that said, the militarised foreign aid effort in Haiti could easily develop into something like a colonial occupation. Canada could help to avert this by adopting the principle that the best way to “aid” Haiti is to give the government the resources it needs to take back full control of the country as quickly as possible.

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