PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — She is one of Canada’s 100,000 Haitians, driven to tears by images of carnage from her homeland and desperate for news about the people and places she left behind.
Now Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean is going to see for herself.
As she departs early Monday for what will be an emotional two-day tour of her native country, Jean says she’s dreading what she’ll find.
She broke into sobs the last time she visited Haiti and witnessed the devastation from its 2008 hurricanes, and wept more recently during a news conference as it became clear just how much damage had been caused by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.
This visit will be particularly personal. Jean’s survey of Canadian aid efforts will take her to her ancestral hometown of Jacmel.
While there, Jean hopes to go see the old family home where she enjoyed some of her happiest childhood memories, spending summers there with her mom’s relatives in the tall wooden house by the public square. Her RCMP security detail has expressed its misgivings about letting her get too close.
The house is in a sorry state. Parts are twisted out of shape, the wood has been rattled loose, and the trip is considered a security threat.
Jean intends to stress optimistic messages as she delivers public speeches — in English, French, and Creole — about rebuilding, and about Canada’s ongoing commitment to Haiti.
But she harbours no illusions about what she’ll find.
“I dread all the things I need to absorb, to bear and to encounter,” Jean wrote in a blog item posted Sunday, a few hours before her departure.
Large crowds are expected during her two-day visit, which begins with a meeting with President Rene Preval and a tour of the smashed presidential palace. She will then meet with a number of women’s groups and attend a rally in Port-au-Prince.
“I chose to arrive on March 8, International Women’s Day, because we must remember that hope lies with women, that without their involvement, perspectives and solutions, it would all be for naught; nothing would be viable. I want to support that which is on the horizon, beyond the rubble,” Jean wrote.
On her blog, she also 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.
“I tell her, searching deep in her eyes for a light — a glimmer — that would be worth a thousand words. I try and tell her, not knowing whether she understands, that I’m going to Jacmel, to the place of her birth, to remember the many happy days from our previous life, long ago.”
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive described Jean’s trip as only the latest evidence of his country’s deep bond with Canada. He said he’s reassured by what he hears from Canadian officials — up to and including the Governor General.
“It’s always the same single message: ’We are with you. We are with you during these hardships, and for the long haul and the reconstruction of Haiti,”’ Bellerive said Sunday.
“There are no different messages — whether it’s (Defence Minister Peter) MacKay … Whether it’s (Development Minister Bev) Oda who was here recently, and who will return. Whether it’s the Governor General. Whether it’s (Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence) Cannon whom I’ve met several times. Whether it’s Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper who came recently.
“There are a lot of official visits from Canada and all these ministers, these officials, these authorities … have only one message. And it’s not only a message — there are acts proving that the message is real. It’s a message of solidarity.”
He made the comments while standing next to MacKay, who was concluding his own one-day trip to Haiti.
MacKay said he was proud to see the difference being made by the Canadian Forces, who have distributed 2.5 million litres of water, built 15 houses per day, and provided medical care and hundreds of thousands of meals.
“That has to have made a difference,” MacKay said.
“I understand the enormity of the challenge that remains, particularly for displaced people. . . (But) the people I’ve seen have been extremely grateful.”
There is persistent criticism here, however, that aid has been distributed badly — and, in some cases unfairly, — by local authorities.
Henricles Petithomme is especially concerned about that.
When the Port-au-Prince man was asked whether he was aware Michaelle Jean was coming he said, “No.”
When asked what message he’d like to send her he said, “People who are really victims are not getting aid. The people getting things are those with connections — not necessarily those suffering.”