PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — One minute, Michaelle Jean was walking solemnly through the crumbled ruins of the church in Haiti where she was baptized as a baby. The next, she found herself leading a boisterous crowd of women in a rousing Creole chant.
The two scenes, which played out within moments of each other at the start of the Governor General’s two-day visit to Haiti, served as vivid examples of the jarring contrasts inherent in Jean’s emotional return to her homeland following January’s earthquake.
Jean arrived Monday armed with messages of hope and recovery, but delivered them before a backdrop of abject destruction.
It was a day when she would thank Canadian soldiers and applaud rebuilding efforts in the town of Leogane, then wander across the street into a displaced-persons camp to chat with Haiti’s newly homeless.
Jean stepped off the plane Monday morning in a casual green-and-khaki outfit that looked more military than vice-regal, and was greeted by President Rene Preval and Haitian officials before the pair flew by helicopter to the ruins of the presidential palace compound.
They landed on the lawn and strolled over to a gazebo, where Preval offered condolences for Canada’s losses and for those suffered by Jean herself: her child’s godmother was among those killed in the Jan. 12 temblor.
“Dear Michaelle Jean, you have come, you have seen, and you will continue to see, that the devastation was immense,” Preval said. “But we need to move on … We are grateful to the Canadian people for helping us in that movement.”
Addressing the news conference in her native Creole, Jean said she was struck by all the activity on the bustling streets of Port-au-Prince as the capital lurches back to life. And she said people around the world, particularly in Canada, will continue to care about Haiti.
“I want the Haitian people to know: You are not alone,” she said. “What I want you to know is that everywhere in Canada … people are determined to accompany you here as you rebuild.”
In English, she added: “Mourning is one thing. Making sure that life triumphs over destruction is the focus.”
Across the street from the ruins of the presidential palace, a sea of tents has sprouted up in a public square that is one of Haiti’s most prestigious pieces of real estate.
The Governor General then visited the site of the St. Trinite church, where she was baptized. It is now reduced to heaps of rubble, with a crushed car sitting by the entrance under tonnes of debris.
The ruins are what is left of a UNESCO World Heritage site that was famous for its colourful fresco wall paintings, and Jean was given one of its most priceless pieces: a chunk of the rubble carrying the signature of the renowned Haitian artist Prephet Dufaut.
She resisted at first, shaking her head at what she called too precious a gift. The Governor General knelt toward the floor of the church and swept away dust to get a glimpse of the elegant old floor buried underneath.
At her next stop, however, the mood lifted and Jean suddenly found herself in the midst of a jubilant, boisterous rally at a gathering to mark the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Jean was welcomed by hundreds of women who sang as she walked in, with many jostling to get closer to the stage. She cried during a song dedicated to a friend who died in the quake, the feminist Magalie Marcelin.
Nadeje Augustin, the deputy mayor of Port-au-Prince, greeted her warmly.
“I want to tell you: Walls fell. Many people are dead,” Augustin said. “But we, the women of Haiti, are still here.”
Jean delivered a speech in English, French and Creole, with a particular message for the women of Haiti.
The country’s struggle with violence against women has been well-documented, and there are new reports of sexual assaults taking place in the chaotic tent cities. Jean told the women that they represented hope in that country, and said they deserved to be treated with respect.
She then asked, in Creole, whether there were any men in the audience. When some called out to her in response, she implored them to treat women with dignity.
The subject is particularly personal to her.
In a blog posting before she arrived, Jean spoke about her own mother, who left an abusive relationship to raise her children alone in a one-and-a-half room basement apartment in Montreal.
She used her mother’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s as an analogy for Haiti, a place with countless gaps in its history, with thousands of places now lost forever as people increasingly forget what used to stand in those now-crumbled spots.
Audience members Monday wore T-shirts that said: “Many women fell. But we will keep going. Haiti will not perish.”
The contrasts were evident again later Monday.
Jean capped the first day of her visit with a trip to the town of Leogane, where she applauded the efforts of the members of the Canadian Forces, who have provided medical care to some 22,000 people, working long days for weeks on end.
Many of them are scheduled to leave soon on an equally challenging mission in Afghanistan, Jean noted.
“People are talking about you back home,” Jean said in French, drawing applause from the troops. “People are proud of you … You instill pride in the country you represent. We could not ask for better ambassadors than you.”
She later visited the town hall, which is being rebuilt. She then crossed the street and wandered through rows of tents and tin shacks where some of Haiti’s 1.2 million new homeless now live.
Several Canadian VIPs have visited Haiti in recent weeks, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several federal ministers. Officials here noted, however, that Jean was the first to go visit one of these camps.
She exchanged greetings with several of the residents, and started walking down the adjacent street before Canada’s ambassador told her she had better get back into a vehicle.
As her motorcade drove away, a crowd of curious onlookers lined up on the sidewalk.
There were smiles and waves. One little boy kept shouting, “Canadien.”
Jean will conclude her visit Tuesday with a stop in her ancestral hometown of Jacmel, where she will see Canadian aid efforts.
She also hopes to go see the family home where she spent her summers — but the building is heavily damaged and her RCMP detail fears the stop might represent a security threat.
After visiting Haiti, Jean will pay a one-day state visit to the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, to thank officials there for the country’s efforts to help.