Former governor general Michaelle Jean vividly remembers the shock of seeing the country of her birth after it was hit by a catastrophic earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010.
“It was as if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Haiti,” Jean said in an interview with The Canadian Press this week.
Ten years later, she is forced to conclude that the massive humanitarian aid effort that followed was a missed opportunity and a “failure for the international community.”
Jean was in her office at Rideau Hall in Ottawa when her aide-de-camp rushed in with the news: a devastating earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale had just rocked Haiti.
“I felt anxiety, shock, I feared the worst but also felt an urgency to act,” she recalled.
She immediately called the Canadian ambassador in Haiti, who was only reachable by satellite phone.
In an anguished voice, he told her of an “unimaginable catastrophe” — entire neighbourhoods under rubble and fears that thousands could be dead.
In the end, that initial estimate was tragically far from the mark: between 200,000 and 300,000 people were killed, at least another 300,000 were injured and more than one million Haitians were left homeless.
As titular commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the governor general contacted defence headquarters, and a Hercules plane was loaded with supplies. Normally under international conventions, a request for aid must come from the affected country, but the Canadian ambassador in Haiti said it would be pointless to wait.
“He said, ‘We can’t reach the president. We don’t even know who is alive,’ ” she recalled, so the Canadian government approved the plane’s departure.
Reports came in of towns that had been almost completely levelled. Jacmel, the town in the south of Haiti where Jean grew up, suffered tremendous destruction.
In Haiti as in Canada, people desperately searched for signs of life from loved ones. “Every minute became unbearable,” she said. And then the names of the dead and missing emerged, one by one. “One day I found myself alone in my office, and I screamed in sorrow,” she said.
Jean decided to visit the country, timing her trip to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, because she considers women to be particularly vulnerable in disaster situations.
“The level of suffering, of misery, was immense,” she said. “But there was also this pride, this desire to believe that things are going to get better and this hope.”
She said she was struck by Haitian women who welcomed her by singing. “What was in place in Haiti was resistance,” she said, adding that she does not like the word “resilience” and its suggestion of a certain acceptance of one’s situation.
The challenge facing Haiti was monumental, she said, noting that 60 per cent of the country’s civil servants perished in the earthquake. Hiring replacements was difficult as the state struggled to compete with international organizations that pay better.
Jean said the government quickly found itself overwhelmed, unable to absorb all the offers of help.
She has harsh words for the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that arrived en masse after the disaster.
“The organizations are there each for themselves, for their own interests, disconnected from Haitian NGOs and showing no willingness to work with them,” she said. She said she tried to encourage the foreign organizations to work with Haitian partners but got nowhere.
She said there was necessary emergency assistance, and some initiatives yielded results. But in the end the impact of the international NGOs was not lasting. She now considers it a textbook example of “the bankruptcy of humanitarian aid.”
When she visited the devastated country as governor general, Jean told Haitians: “You are not alone.”
Ten years later, she acknowledges the Haitian people feel alone, even betrayed. “People hoped that from this great misfortune a better life would come,” she said. “For the international community, there is an acknowledgment of serious failure.”