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Help for Haiti: Vietnamese and Indo-Canadians pitch in

January 31, 2010

the agronomist.

capture from film 'The Agronomist.'

Unlike many Canadians I can speak of no strong personal links to Haiti – although I had the privilege in the 90’s to work with a very fine journalist originally from that country. However, as a poet, I have long been … well … obsessed by Jonathan Demme’s movie, The Agronomist — a film about another journalist, Jean Dominique.

That film explores the ramifications of one of Haiti’s central tensions – the split between a landless Creole speaking majority and its opposite, the French elite – something that investigative journalist Mark Danner touches on in his book, Stripping Bare the Body, a review of which is currently online and free much to the credit of the writer, Charles Simic, and the source, The New York Review of Books.

Apparently, “stripping bare the body” is a phrase used by former Haitian president Leslie Manigat who assumed power in 1987 after the “Duvalierist officers” and refers to the way “political violence ‘strips bare the social body,’ allowing us to see beneath the surface to the real workings of a society.”

This real politik seems absent from recent feel good coverage of what rich countries like the U.S. and Canada have been doing for Haiti.  How supercilious was it, I wonder, that earlier in the month, when a group of B.C. students stranded in Haiti were mercifully evacuated, in the midst of rejoicing, I also pulled open my copy of Memory of Fire: Genesis, by Eduardo Galeano, who came to prominence again last year when President Obama attended a conference on the Americas, and in that Galeano book, I read about “our first conquest,” we of the West, what we have wrought, 1492-2010 in Haiti.

Until last night, I had not yet made a contribution to the relief efforts for Haiti. In fact, in researching the role of evangelical Christian aid groups in the area of Grand Goave, I was hesitant about too readily dipping into what felt, with the greatest respect to well meaning people everywhere, a kind of Haiti Hysteria, where we the privileged few rush in, with our money, our good intentions, our need to compensate for, well, for everything. Why is it that in both Haiti and in Guatemala, in the wake of decades old American military involvement in some of the poorest countries in the world, American based evangelical Christian groups – with many Canadian off-shoots, are robust in their involvement in building the infrastructure of these countries, in creating a de facto health system for example? “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love” was a refrain in a hymn I once sang, as a believer. And perhaps that is reason enough.  Squeamishness about ways and means in the face of calamity runs the risk, no doubt, of veering into lazy cynicism.

Happily, this weekend I supported a local Help Haiti event sponsored by Vancouver’s Mekong Delta Fellowship Society in Greater Vancouver. The Mekong region in South Vietnam saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the Vietnam war, and those from the South, who fought against the Viet Cong, often Catholic, often affluent, were among the numbers incarcerated in camps and then who fled, by boat, under terrible conditions, and so became “the Boat People,” and if they survived, eventually as refugees, sojourned to North America and Australia. Many were sponsored by Canadian aid groups and churches. That they now give generously to Canadian civil society and to other peoples in suffering, speaks volumes about this hard-working community.  It is always interesting to see at Mekong Delta Fellowship events in Vancouver, reminders of the sensibility of these Canadians, many of whom served in the South Vietnamese Army: Ho Chi Minh, of course, viewed as a tyrant and the Viet Cong not romanticized.

Here in Vancouver, another religious/ethno-cultural group with complex ties and associations, the Sikhs and many South Asians, also rallied for Haiti this month. Each of the leading Punjabi language radio stations participated, and thousands of dollars were raised in a less than a day. This well organized politically engaged community will often mobilize in less than 24 hours to aid charitable causes, and often for those who don’t attend either church or temple and who aren’t South Asian.

What a fascinating nation we are: generous, religious and not, ethnically diverse, or “Old Canada,” complex, and thus resistant to too many generalizations. And that’s a good thing. What do you think? What efforts do you support for Haiti? I’d be interested in hearing reactions to the media blitz on disaster.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. C. Fuller permalink
    February 1, 2010 11:46 am

    I also gave to MSF because I knew they were already on the ground in Haiti and that they would give what Haitians needed most at the moment – medical aid. I also was glad to hear the voices of these doctors and other health workers urging that the US, Canada and other countries use the over-stretched and under-equipped airport to meet the needs of the Haitian people – instead of for flying in military hardware and soldiers. But there have been several good articles – for example, in The Lancet – criticizing what is referred to as the “aid industry”. This accords with your comments, Renee – thank you for that!

  2. nmboudin permalink*
    January 31, 2010 11:59 pm

    We regularly give to MSF, and have contributed extra this month. For a long time I have thought of them to be the most non-partisan group, sans religio/politico agenda groups around. I also think they have one of the lowest overheads, i.e. the most money going to the feet on the ground.

  3. Derrick permalink
    January 31, 2010 10:44 pm

    I saw the headline and thought you would be tackling the question of the cruise ship. To Dock or not to Dock. The people arguing for the cruise ship to head on back to Miami or where ever tend to be here in Canada, feeling sensitive to the imagery of having a beach party next to a disaster zone. (I remember an awkward scheduling mishap at SFU, where an election slate in 2006, already under fire for calling themselves ‘Orange Revolution’ with a slogan of ‘It’s Time for Fun,’ managed to schedule “the Longest Dance Party Ever” in one half of Convocation Mall while Holocaust Awareness Week took the other side.) But the response in Haiti, according to the CBC, was to welcome the cruise ship – the last thing that Haiti needs right now is a slowdown in tourist dollars.

    We saw this following the collapse of the World Trade Centre of course: the most patriotic thing you could do, as an average American, was to get out your credit card. So I wonder: is this the next humanitarian option? A new twist on disaster tourism: relax on a beach and rest assured that your luxury dollars are doing good work in a foreign economy.

    PS. Watching the federal government discuss fast-tracking both immigration and, more ominously perhaps, adoption from Haiti has been eerie for me. The solution to a crisis in a Caribbean nation is to move their young into Canadian suburban homes.

  4. Canadian by birth only permalink
    January 31, 2010 1:37 pm

    Once again, I’ll interject a little brutal reality into this Canadian nationalist sentimentality. 1. Americans are not alone in their blood soaked medling of poorer nations. Along with France, Canada signed off in advance to the coup d’etat in 2005 which removed the democraticaly elected leader of Haiti: Aristide, when his brand of populism began shifting alla Chavez. 2. Like any Westerner Canadian genoresity is limited to the 24hr media coverage and the social pressure it brings.
    3. The largest population of Haitians in Canada can be found in Montreal-North, where in 2009 a race riot was the response to the police killing of a teenager playing dice in a park. The closest thing Canada has to a US styled ghetto next to Jane-Finch in Toronto. Is this an example of Canada’s fair an equal multi-cultural diversity?

  5. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    January 31, 2010 12:58 pm

    Interesting article, Renee. I agree that it can be problematic to have a huge influx of cash go to a plethora of different groups in a time of crisis, as this can lead to an uncoordinated relief effort and the funding of groups who may be well intentioned but not well trained or experienced enough to handle complex situations like the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. My family and I have given almost exclusively to Partners in Health (, an organization that I first came across several years ago and that I think is doing some of the best work on health care, not only in Haiti but worldwide. PIH focuses on community-based solutions to health, employing many local people and working with the ministry of health. In Haiti, they have clinics set up all across the country, not only in the capital Port Au Prince, which is untrue of most other organizations working there, and they have some of the best indicators for health in the country. They are hard working, honest, transparent, and most importantly, willing to and interested in listening to locals about their wants and needs. I truly believe that they are the model for health non-profits, and would encourage anyone interested in giving to Haiti to do so through PIH.

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