La Maison d’Haïti opens new, permanent community centre

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WATCH ABOVE: After six years of work, Haitian Montrealers celebrated the opening of the new Maison d'Haïti community centre. But as Navneet Pall reports, it was a bittersweet day as the community mourns the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Matthew – Oct 16, 2016

La Maison d’Haïti has been a bedrock of support in Montreal’s Haitian community and since the mission opened in 1972 they’ve bounced from one shelter to the next, until now.

On the corner of Émile-Journault Avenue and 12th Avenue in Saint Michel, La Maison d’Haïti finally has a permanent home that’s been 44 years in the making.

Its general director Marjorie Villefranche has been a community organizer ever since she arrived in Montreal in 1965.

In 2010, when an earthquake devastated the country, Villefranche saw how the community gathered in large numbers at the former community centre to give donations and support each other.

That’s when Villefranche realized that they needed a larger centre.

Since then, the city gave $2 million to help make the project a reality.

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“My dream is coming true now cause we have that new building,” Villefranche said. “The other dream is I would like [to see] that building full of the younger generation using it as the legacy.”

Villefranche wants the centre to reflect the Haitian community’s rich history.

“Particularly the young Haitians, they have to remember, they have to know the history of the community,” Villefranche said. “By knowing the history of the community they know how we enrich the country here.”

La Maison d’Haïti has played an important role in helping new arrivals establish themselves with support services.

The new facility will continue that tradition but it’s now a state-of-the-art community centre. It now boasts a multipurpose media hall, café, art studio and a computer lab.

“We are rich in art, and rich in human beings so I think it’s important for us to have a very beautiful building to show everyone that we enrich the community here,” Villefranche said.

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La Maison d’Haïti is also a place for social activism.

According to contributing archivist Désirée Rochat, the centre has been at the forefront of speaking about systemic racism in Montreal.

“Some of the founders of the organization were people that were also involved in political opposition and political resistance in Haiti before coming here,” Rochat said.

In 1987, when the police killed Anthony Griffin, they presented memoirs to the commission that followed.

They’ve also played an important role in advancing women’s rights in the community and asked some tough questions.

“Back in the 70s and 80s they were working with different women’s collectives around questions of equality, questions of gender, how to fight for women’s rights,” Rochat said. “[And] how to understand one’s rights in a new context because migration brings in a lot of changes into the family.”

The new facility will help collect the centre’s rich history and serve as a reminder of where the community came from.

“The idea is not to create a repository that is dead and just be consulted,”  Rochat said. “[We would like to] always seek new ways and to include the material or make the material available to people not just researchers.”
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As Haiti is gripping with another natural disaster, Villefranche has been raising funds for emergency rescue operations but will soon be ready to send funds to grassroots organizations who will respond to people’s needs.

“The first phase was emergency help. Now we are getting in another phase where we are going to help, directly, the villagers,” Villefranche said.

Villefranche added that the next phase will start next week.

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