Haiti is a small country, taking up the western third of the island of Hispaniola, its geography a backwards “C”, with the capital Port au Prince at the lower west coast of the country.  It is a  desperately poor country, a population of 9 million, and a gdp of only 12 billion dollars – the total budget of the national government last year was just under a billion dollars.  Its total external debt was about 1.4 billion.

The picture of Haiti in the western mind is one of violence and voodoo, crime and corruption, a country whose middle class has fled for Montreal, New York and Miami, who send money back to families to the tune of nearly a billion and half a year.

It was a French slave colony of particular brutality,  whose independence came as the result of a bloody slave revolt led by Toussaint de Louverture.  Its constitution – an original copy of which was recently discovered by a Canadian researcher – speaks of “liberty or death”, and is an angry litany of the oppression of the French colonisers rather than a description of the “rights of man” and principles of the future.    Independence did not bring freedom for many, but rather a series of dictators, self-proclaimed emperors whose brutality was on a par with their French predecessors.

The United States occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and have played a critical role in the politics of the country, most notably by supporting the notorious dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose brutal and corrupt governments had the support of the west as bulwarks against communism.

Since the flight of Baby Doc to France with all his millions twenty years ago Haiti’s governance issues are well known.  Stable governments have been hard to find.  President Aristide came into power to replace a military coup, but he was quickly overthrown.  Bill Clinton’s administration helped bring Aristide back, but the ineffectiveness and gross corruption led to another coup and Aristide’s exile (with money in tow).  He now lives in South Africa, and still has some true believers in Haiti, but certainly not a majority.  In the middle of the main square in front of the destroyed Presidential palace, now surrounded by makeshift tarpaulin tents and lean-to’s,  there is a bizarre stone monument with an “eternal flame” that never worked.  It was built by Aristide and was supposed to rival the Eiffel Tower.  It doesn’t, and its absurd presence is a reminder of the absurdity and disappointment of the Aristide regime.

Haiti’s constitution and laws reflect its French inheritance, with a President and Prime Minister, a National Assembly and a Senate.  Its political centralism is matched by a never ending flow of people to the capital Port au Prince (known locally as “La Republique de Port au Prince”) – the city and suburbs easily make up half the population.

The last two years were not easy ones for Haiti.  A major hurricane hit the center and south of the island in 2008, and the rebuild from that was proving difficult.  Nonetheless the country was preparing for parliamentary and Presidential elections, and economic growth was modest but steady.

Whatever optimism there might have been about Haiti’s prospects received its harshest blow at 5:30 in the evening on January 2, 2010.  An earthquake lasting 37 seconds flattened Port au Prince and dozens of surrounding communities, killing up to 300,000 people and displacing at least a million others.

Canada has four times the population of Haiti.  Imagine a natural disaster that killed over a million people in Canada, and made over four million homeless.  Every major building, hospital, university,  forty percent of the houses and apartments, destroyed.  It is almost impossible to imagine.  And yet this is what has happened.

To visit Port au Prince three months later is to see two strangely incongruous things:   a country literally in ruins, with billions of tons of rocks and rubble everywhere; and a people trying to pick up the pieces, living in tents and lean-to’s, small vendors on the street selling what they can, men and women with shovels, brooms, bare hands and wheelbarrows doing what they can to clean up.  Whole buildings and blocks of streets flattened for miles around, devastation as bad as any war, and yet a people refusing to give up.

The world responded quickly to Haiti’s chaos, and travelling to Leogane and Jacmel, the two centres of Canadian military activity in the aftermath of the quake there is deep gratitude for our efforts.  Canadian nuns have operated the Cardinal Leger hospital for decades, and it was rocked to its foundations.  It is now empty, and can’t be used.  The sisters are living in tents and only able to dispense medicine from a small dispensary.  The army made it possible for them to get back on their feet.  In the city of Leogane, where nearly twenty percent of the people died and well over half of the buildings were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, the Mayor Alexis Santos works out of a makeshift office built by Canadian troops.  Canadian bulldozing equipment cleared the road from Leogane to Jacmel on the southern coast,  and the DART mission there functioned as the local hospital for the entire area.

The army – Canada had about two thousand troops on the ground – has now left.  Together with the gratitude was the inevitable expression “we wish you could have stayed longer”.  This is in good part because the evacuation of the troops also meant the evacuation of the heavy equipment that came with them, and that is so sorely needed.

The UN has made huge efforts to co-ordinate the humanitarian effort, and much is being done to reduce the turf wars and miscommunication that are inevitable in a situation as naturally chaotic as Haiti’s.  Volunteers and UN workers from around the world live in tents themselves and try desperately to stay focused and positive as they confront the human calamity before them.

Canada’s Ambassador Gilles Rivard and his team are a model of compassion and professionalism.  The embassy itself was badly damaged by the quake – staff are working in the garage, in the front hall, everywhere.  In the aftermath of the disaster they had to deal with literally thousands of people wanting to leave, a local staff whose own lives had been thrown into chaos, and a press demanding answers at every turn.

Canada’s relationship with Haiti has been a long one.  Catholic missionaries have been coming for decades; Haitians have chosen Canada as a country of refuge and a second home.  Trade has been small but CIDA has had an aid programme in the country since the late 1960’s.  We are now, after the US, the second largest dispensers of foreign assistance in the country.  We recently reaffirmed that status at a conference in New York dedicated to setting up a co-ordinated approach to the immense challenge ahead.

The big worry is that the rains are coming, and many thousands are living in places that will soon be uninhabitable.  The “international community” – governments and NGO’s – have announced billions in aid, but the key issue is the inability of the government itself to deal with the problems that have long been identified – lack of land reform, no clear rules around property, whole swaths of people disenfranchised and living on the margin long before the earthquake.  Just as the quake brought shabby structures down in a heap (see the grocery store in the pic), it has exposed the huge weaknesses in the social fabric of the country.

Hope for sustainable  democracy depends on at least four things – some social solidarity, a working legal structure around property and human rights, a political leadership that cares about the country, and the basis for economic development.  Haiti is challenged on all four fronts, so money sent here will have to be carefully channelled to deal with the long term, not just the crisis in front of our faces.

It’s physically as bad here as I’ve ever seen it – in India. Sri Lanka, or the reserves of northern Canada.  But the people are remarkably resilient and good humoured despite the tragedy and poverty all around.

Opposition politicians remain skeptical.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.