Canada has given the Caribbean nation millions in aid. But has it done any good?

MICHAEL PETROU April 14 2008


Canada has given the Caribbean nation millions in aid. But has it done any good?

MICHAEL PETROU April 14 2008


Canada has given the Caribbean nation millions in aid. But has it done any good?

Haiti’s National Penitentiary looms above the teeming streets of the capital Port-auPrince like a whale that has stranded itself on a garbage-strewn beach and started to rot. The walls, painted sky blue and white, peel and flake. Soldiers from the United Nations mission in Haiti stand guard outside, near an armoured UN vehicle that is mounted with a heavy machine gun and faces the front gate. Escapes from the prison are not uncommon. Outside the prison’s entrance, women wait with bags of food to bring to their jailed husbands and sons.

Words cannot adequately describe the horror, the stench, and the despair inside. Numbers help. If international minimum standards of about four square metres for every prisoner were met, the National Penitentiary would hold a little more than 400 inmates. On the day Maclean’s visits the prison, there are 3,331 men jailed inside. Most, at least 90


per cent, have not had a trial. They are held under the euphemistic term “preventative detention,” and because of a lack of judges, proper evidence, and even vehicles to transport them to court, it is unlikely many will be tried any time soon.

“People sleep on top of people in here,” one prisoner says through the bars of a bathroomsized cell that holds 43 people. Most are standing. Others have fashioned hammocks out of scraps of cloth and have suspended themselves from the bars of the cell’s high window, where they can get more light and air. “The food is bad. The toilets are nasty. They treat us like pigs.” But even in the most crowded feedlots, pigs have more space than this.

Somewhere among the thousands of inmates in the National Penitentiary are three Canadians who have fallen afoul of Haitian justice. “Drugs and other crap,” a prison official explains. Claude Boucher, Canada’s

ambassador to Haiti, confirms that Canadians are held at the National Penitentiary but can’t comment on their individual cases.

Canada’s involvement in Haiti’s prisons, its justice system, and indeed the very security and stability of the country goes far beyond the existence of a few unfortunate inmates languishing in jail. Canada’s aid to Haiti soared following the 2006 election of President René Préval. It pledged $555 million over five years, making Haiti Canada’s largest foreign aid recipient after Afghanistan.

Canada also contributes about 110 civilian personnel and soldiers to the United Nations

Stabilization Mission in Haiti, commonly known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH. Most are serving and retired police officers tasked with mentoring and training the Haitian police. Four Canadian Forces officers serve at MINUSTAH headquarters, which oversees the approximately 7,000 UN soldiers in the country. There are also eight serving and retired officers from Correctional Services of Canada who have the monumental job of helping Haitians humanize their country’s wretched prison system.

Lisa Quirion, a correctional officer from Montreal, is in charge of the 16-person UN team assigned to Haiti’s prisons. An engaging and straight-talking woman, she makes no efforts to sugar-coat the state of Haiti’s jails, or the absence of justice that has resulted in so many men, women, and even children residing within their walls. She once discovered an eight-year-old girl inside a prison for

women. The child had been left alone with a baby, and there was an accident that killed the infant. The girl was accused of murder. On a more recent visit to the same prison, this reporter interviewed a 13-year-old girl who has been jailed since 2006, without a trial.

“There is no justice,” Quirion says in an interview with Maclean’s at her home in the Pétionville neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. “People aren’t being judged. If you see how crowded the prison cells are, it’s just unfathomable that people are in there. But what do you do if you have no staff? What do you do if the walls are falling apart? The guards have no equipment. A lot of the time, they’re scared.” Quirion says that Canada has made some money available to improve and maintain Haiti’s prison infrastructure. But in general, foreign donors tend to ignore prisons. No visiting dignitary wants to be photographed cutting the ribbon on a brand new jail, and too often money follows the photo-op. “The international community isn’t interested in prisons. They want to build hospitals, schools, all that sexy stuff,” she says. Quirion also stresses that the UN mission in Haiti is not an “executive” one, meaning that her staff can coach, cajole, and make suggestions. But they can’t give orders. Ultimate responsibility rests with their Haitian counterparts. “We provide advice,” she says. “Most of the time the Haitians take it, because we have good relations. But my officers don’t run the prisons.”

This, combined with a severe lack of funds, means that any progress is slow and incremental. “I wish I could say that we changed the world in one year, but it will take a lot of years,” Quirion says. She hopes that within five years, prisoners will have two square metres of space each—enough room, conceivably, to curl up in a ball and sleep. “There haven’t been big results. But there have been a lot of little results. We work with the local staff to say, ‘Okay, how do we get the prisoners outside for more than 15 minutes a day?’ Little changes make a difference.”

Meanwhile, back at the National Penitentiary, a Maclean’s reporter and photographer are shown around by Robinson Cadet, a towering, soft-spoken Haitian American correctional officer on Lisa Quirion’s staff. He

begins the tour on a walkway above prison yards full of men washing themselves and their clothes, standing around, or squatting over the open-air latrines. Most ignore us. A few give us the finger or make gang signs with their hands. One yells, “Are you here to help me?”

Like Lisa Quirion, Cadet is forthright about the pervasive injustices in the system. One man, a night watchman, was accused of stealing 30 bags of flour when they went missing during his shift and was sentenced to seven years. “We have murderers who are not jailed for this long.” Another was ordered released two years ago but is still imprisoned because his file has been lost.

As Cadet walks he drags a key against the outer wall of the prison, which crumbles. “It’s

rotten. All you need is a pick or a nail clipper, and you’re through the wall,” he says. Cadet asks how many prison staff we see in the yards below. The answer is none. “The officers are in a corner, protecting themselves,” he says. ‘The place runs itself. It’s on autopilot.” There are two empty yards in one corner of the prison, but there aren’t enough guards to cover the area so it remains vacant.

Cadet leads us down from the walkway and into the yard among the prisoners. He’s a big man, but he’s also brave. He says that after more than two decades working in American prisons he’s learned not to show fear, but it’s also possible that the prisoners here appreciate the changes he has brought to the institution. A year ago, he says, garbage and excre-

ment covered the floors of the cells and yards. Prisoners would defecate in plastic bags and toss them out the windows of their cells because they had no place to do so inside. Today, Cadet provides brooms, hoses, and detergent for prisoners to wash out the cells, sometimes paid for out of his own pocket. Grey, soapy water flows along drainage gutters inside one block of cells. “There are more inmates than before,” he says. “But it’s cleaner and there’s less tension.”

The prison, however, is still a nightmare. Cadet says most cells are little more than four by four metres and hold 70 to 80 prisoners each. In the admission yard, there is an even smaller and more cramped cell where inmates are supposed to be kept on a tem-

A severe lack of funds means any progress is slow and incremental. ‘I wish 1 could say we changed the world in a year, but it will take a lot of years,' Quirion says.

She hopes that within five years, prisoners will have enough room, conceivably, to curl up in a ball and sleep.

porary basis. Cadet says prisoners can stay there for up to a month.

The food, served twice a day out of massive cauldrons wheeled about the yard, is mush. Latrines overflow. There is a punishment cell, perhaps four feet tall, where no one can stand. The punishment cell is crowded, but less so than other cells, and some inmates prefer it. “You have people who do things wrong just so they have a place to lie down or to be safe from gangs,” Cadet says.

At every cell window, one or two prisoners sit high above the ground with their legs and arms dangling through the bars, sometimes with a piece of cloth holding them in place. These are the prime spots in the prison, and those who have them must fight to keep

the space, or pay “rent” to the strongman in their room. They eat there and sleep there. Sometimes, Cadet says, the cloth holding them off the ground rips, or they lurch in their sleep and fall onto the concrete below, breaking bones. They are patched up and returned to their cells.

The current United Nations mission in Haiti began in 2004 with a mandate to bring stability and the rule of law to Haiti, after protests and international pressure forced the departure from the country of then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. An interim government ruled Haiti for two years, until René Préval was elected in February 2006. Initial polling results showed that Préval had

won slightly less than 50 per cent of the vote, necessitating a second round of voting. But he was declared the outright victor without another vote after election officials agreed to discount blank ballots.

A publicity-adverse man who was also president from 1996 to 2001, Préval retains widespread public support—partly by shunning pomp and protocol, and by keeping expectations low. “Right now, he’s the Teflon president,” says Robert Fatton Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. ‘I’m not sure how long that will last. Eventually, he’ll have to give something, and he doesn’t have that much to give.”

One thing that Préval has delivered, however, is the support of the international community-including Canada, which is Haiti’s second largest bilateral donor after the United States. This has been crucial to Préval’s greatest success to date—confronting, and largely subduing, the armed gangs that controlled much of the capital’s slums, making them no-go areas for Haiti’s police.

In late December 2006, following months of failed negotiations, Préval gave the UN his consent to send troops into Port-au-Prince’s most notorious shantytown, Cité Soleil. The soldiers established strongpoints inside the slum and didn’t shy away from gunfights. Local Haitians realized the UN was there to stay, and turned against the gangs. Within months, many of the most powerful gang leaders were arrested or dead. By May, UN soldiers and police, now joined by Haitian police, could patrol on foot where it was once only possible to travel inside armoured vehicles.

Most Haitians say that the UN troops are still necessary and want them to stay. “Haitians don’t value other Haitians more than a sweet potato peel. They aren’t afraid of each other,” Eric Belizaire, 80, a shoemaker from the once violent Martissant neighbourhood, tells Maclean’s. He gestures at a passing patrol of Sri Lankan peacekeepers. “But they won’t fight these guys.”

Living standards are still dire, however, and the relative peace is fragile. The job of the 96 Canadian police assigned to the UN mission is to help Haitian police consolidate the existing stability and eventually secure

the country on their own. This involves teaching and mentoring—much of which takes place on the job, during patrols and at police stations across the country. But Haiti’s police force is also drastically short of personnel, and Canadians are helping to train new recruits at the National Police Academy.

One such instructor is Roberto Del Papa, a 24-year veteran of the Montreal Police Service. This is Del Papa’s second mission in Haiti. He was here from 2004 to 2005 and says the changes since his last tour are dramatic. “2004 was a different ball game—a lot of hostages. It was hard, mentally and physically. I had my 9 mm ready to go 20 times. This tour, not once.”

As Del Papa talks, he navigates his UN standard white 4x4 along a pockmarked road running through a crowded neighbourhood on one of the hills above Port-au-Prince’s downtown core. He is energetic and relentlessly upbeat; his driving is aggressive, interspersed with outbursts of courtesy. He punches his horn twice and swings into oncoming traffic to overtake a tap-tap—a colourfully painted pickup truck that has benches crammed into the back and functions as a freelance taxi. We cross a bridge over a garbage-filled gully, where chickens and a couple of pigs are rooting, and then he stops so two girls in bright school uniforms can pass safely in front of him. Del Papa waves, and the girls wave back.

“Look at these kids,” he says. “They’re so cute. I love them. They’re so well mannered. It’s always, ‘Bonjour! Bonjour!’ I tell the guys at home before they start a mission, ‘Don’t wait till you get home to appreciate what it’s like here. Try to enjoy every minute.’ ”

Del Papa teaches what he describes as community policing at the academy. In a nutshell, this means winning the trust and support of local residents, which is difficult in a country like Haiti where the police force used to be heavily politicized and still struggles with corruption. “We’re trying to get the Haitian police to think differently, to get closer to the community,” Del Papa says. “Before, the police thought that you needed to intimidate people. We’re trying to change that.”

We pass a Haitian police officer wearing a helmet, goggles, knee pads, and carrying an assault rifle. Del Papa grimaces. “He looks like a soldier. Can you imagine getting pulled over by him? It would scare the s-t out of you.”

Like all the UN police, correctional officers, and soldiers on the mission, Del Papa can teach and advise. But he cannot give orders or tell the Haitians he works with how to do their jobs. This can cause frustration. Del Papa once saw a Haitian police officer beating a suspect and felt powerless to intervene. The memory bothers him. “If I had to do it

again, I’d get out of the car,” he says. But Del Papa believes the mission’s success depends on the co-operation of his Haitian partners. “Always remember that it’s their country,” he says. “You can’t go in there with big shoes. You go in with little shoes. You go in slow and you communicate. You can’t be dictatorial.”

We arrive at the National Police Academy, with its sprawling grounds, barracks, and parade square. The grass here is greener, and the buildings are in better shape, than in much of the capital. In a couple of days, a new batch of potential recruits will arrive for a round of mental and physical screening. Del Papa will walk among them, patting the young men and women on the shoulder before the rigorous physical tests begin, and shouting encouragement as they struggle with push-ups and sit-ups. Today, however, the current class has almost completed its seven months of training and many are marching on the parade square, practising for their graduation ceremony. “I’m proud when I see these guys,” Del Papa says.

One recruit, Youte Wisley, 32, previously worked as a math teacher but is attending the academy to become a correctional officer. He says he wants to serve his country and agrees this is what he was doing as a teacher, but adds, “Right now, the biggest problem in Haiti is security.”

Port-au-Prince is built on a coastal plain ringed by steep, deforested hills that are covered in one or two upper-class neighbourhoods and several sprawling shantytowns. Every time it rains, mud, human waste, and garbage rush down these hills onto the plain below. Eventually, as the law of gravity dictates, much of the filth ends up here, in the seaside slum of Cité Soleil.

Cité Soleil is the most iconic patch of land in the country. It was the stronghold of Haiti’s most powerful gangs, and establishing control here is perceived as vital to the overall success of the UN mission. It’s still a violent place. According to John White, an RCMP veteran and now the regional commander of Port-au-Prince West for the UN Police, more than half the murders in Port-au-Prince are committed here.

Sewage-filled canals flank roads leading into the shantytown. The smell of burning garbage is everywhere, occasionally relieved by that of wood smoke and roasting plantains. All the shacks here have tin roofs, usually held in place by loose stones. The better ones have cinderblock walls; the rest have rusty tin walls as well. Children are everywhere, often naked. A few, though black, have reddish blond hair—evidence of malnutrition. Some changes have occurred over the last few years. A hospital is up and running, with

the help of $500,000 from the Canadian International Development Agency. And gangs now have less control. But the poverty is crushing and pervasive.

Imacula Brutus, 32, lives in one of the worst areas of Cité Soleil. Her one-room shack is filled with three beds, where she sleeps with nine children. Two of the beds have mattresses. The third has pieces of cardboard covering the bed frame’s wire mesh. “My husband was a fisherman.

His name was Jean Robert Muscadet,” she says. “One day, he went to the wharf to work, and Blade—he’s a gangster who’s in jail nowcaught him and demanded everything he had. My husband had nothing, so Blade’s men beat him to death.

Then they took his body and burned it. I couldn’t even bury my husband. I had to watch him burn.”

Brutus is a thin woman whose short hair is twisted into a few dreadlocks. She wears a dirty shirt and skirt, and a butterfly necklace. The only other clothes she owns, including those for her children, add up to a small pile on the floor of her shack.

There is a bullet hole in the roof. Five of the children she lives with are her own. The others belonged to her sister, who died of tuberculosis. “Sometimes their father comes by, but this is rare. When a man loses a wife, he no longer sees his children as his own.”

Brutus lives primarily on the charity of others who have almost as little as she does. A woman sells food from a nearby stall, and if Brutus helps her wash her pots, she is sometimes given a plate of food that she can share with her nine children. Each one gets about a mouthful.

“My only hope comes from the children. Although I feel I can’t do much for them, I see them growing up. If God wants to help me, he’ll take one of these children and allow them to be something, and they’ll help all of us,” she says. “But how can God help them if I can’t even send them to school? How will they get skills to survive? My eldest daughter is 13.1 want to send her to school. There are free public schools, but you need to pay for uniforms, and I can’t do that. But I don’t want her to stay here. There are gangs that rape girls like her. People say there is more security, but I don’t see it that way. Yes, the police can come now, but if you denounce someone to the police, the gangs will get you. The big-

gest gang leaders are in hiding. They’re still here, and they’ll take their revenge.” Besides, she says, her biggest worry is hunger. “What has changed is that I don’t hear gunshots anymore. But I still woke up this morning with no hope. I don’t know what to feed my children, and my fate is in the hands of God.”

A few metres away from Imacula Brutus’s shack, where the garbage-covered tidal flats gradually give way to the ocean and a small boy is flying a makeshift kite made out of scraps of discarded plastic, two young men agree to speak to Maclean’s on the condition that their real names are not printed. “What I did, I did not choose to do,” the first, who calls himself Richmond and is 21 years old, says. “Being in a gang was never my decision. But when the local boss tells me to do something, I need to do it, or I’ll die.”

Richmond’s friend, who calls himself Chang and is 22, was also recruited by local strongmen to kidnap people who could be held for ransom. One day back in 2005 or 2006, he hijacked a tap-tap taxi. “One of the passengers told me that I would regret what I had done,” Chang says, recalling the day. “I was stunned. I thought he must have been in another gang. But he was a cop who wasn’t wearing his uniform. He had a gun in his bag, and he jumped me. I shot twice. One bullet hit him in the shoulder. Another hit a woman passenger in the head. She was dead. He wasn’t.

Cité Soleil is the most iconic patch of land in the country, a stronghold of Haiti’s most powerful gangs. Getting control here is vital to the success of the UN mission. People need to see you’re involved, a Canadian police officer teaches his Haitian counterpart. They need to know you care.

We wrestled and fought until I shot him again and killed him. We dumped their bodies in the mangrove swamp outside the city.” Chang is still a gangster. “My boss is around, and I’m in touch with different bosses as well. It hasn’t changed for me. I will get out of this,” he says, with little hope or conviction in his voice. “But to get out I need a job.” Richmond, on the other hand, has gone straight, even though he’s still unemployed. “I took my chance and said, ‘No. I won’t do it,’ ” he says. “Of course, there is always the possibility that if you say no, the bosses will force you, or kill you. But with the people demanding peace, we had to give it to them. If we had carried on fighting with the police and the UN soldiers, there would be too much dying. I love the

people around me. I don’t want them to die.”

Maclean’s returned to Cité Soleil the following day on a joint foot patrol involving Canadian UN Police, Haitian National Police, and UN soldiers from Jordan and Brazil. The Canadians include Patrick Paquette, 37, a constable with the Durham Regional Police who’s originally from Gatineau, Que., and is on his first tour in Haiti. Paquette, who has one son, is in the slum almost every day, working out of a building that used to be a gang fortress until UN troops drove them out. It now functions as a bare-bones police station.

The local children know Paquette well. They call out his name and reach to hold his hand as he walks. “It’s a cliché to say that I came here because I want to help people,” he

says. “When I had my interview, I wanted to say something other than that. But that’s why I’m here—to make a difference. It’s a small difference. But if everyone makes a small difference, it adds up.”

The patrol stops in front of a stall where Jean Millot, 48, sells rum by the glass, sometimes mixed with garlic or herbs for medicinal purposes. Christian Nantel, a Montreal police officer and veteran of UN tours in Sierra Leone and Bosnia, chats with the vendor. Nantel wants to know about the security situation in the area. Millot tells him it’s fine where his stall is located, but farther away from the police station, he says, merchants fear being attacked and robbed.

Deeper into the slum, in a neighbourhood

Haiti is a less dangerous, more hopeful place than it has been for years, and this is, in part, because of the United Nations mission and Canada's involvement. But success is precarious. Haitians are still destitute and getting angrier about it. Poverty could destablize the country again.


once controlled by the gang leader Amaral Duclona, vendors sell fried root vegetables, meat, and cookies made from shortening and clay, which some Haitians believe are beneficial to pregnant women. Nantel, who works with Haitian SWAT teams hitting gang hideouts in dangerous pre-dawn raids, buys bags of popcorn from one vendor and distributes the kernels to children. People need to see that you’re involved in their community, he tells a Haitian police officer walking beside him. They need to know that you care.

On a rare overcast day at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince in February, several dozen Canadian members of the United Nations mission in Haiti were awarded medals to mark three months of service. Ambassador Boucher spoke to the recipients. He praised their accomplishments and thanked them. “You have chosen a noble cause,” he said.

When confronted with the enormity of Haiti’s ongoing problems, it’s easy to forget that what Boucher says is true. Haiti is a less dangerous, more hopeful place than it has been for years, and this is the case, in part, because of the United Nations mission there and Canada’s involvement in it.

Canada is also heavily invested in Haiti outside the auspices of the UN. CIDA spends almost $100 million a year here, on projects

that include roads, canals, and training Haitian health care managers. Private Canadian charities are also scattered across the country. In the city of Jérémie, Canadian UN Police, with the help of friends and family back in Canada, have raised more than $10,000 for an orphanage that is home to 45 children. If your heart doesn’t melt to hear these kids singing to welcome Montreal police officer Christiane Malenfant, who spearheaded the project, when she comes to visit along with some of her colleagues, it’s probably made of stone.

Everywhere, however, success is precarious. Haitians are still destitute and are getting angrier about it. Their continued poverty could easily destabilize the country. Preventing this from happening requires the security necessary for economic investment, and this in turn will mean the involvement of countries like Canada in Haiti for years to come.

In the centre of the Champs de Mars, the main public square in Port-au-Prince, stand

the ruins of a monument that was commissioned to celebrate Haiti’s bicentennial in 2004. The original plan called for something resembling the Eiffel Tower, with a spotlight on top shining gloriously upwards into the heavens. But sometime during its construction, the project ran out of money, or perhaps the right person wasn’t bribed. It now stands unfinished, collecting garbage that blows up and gets snagged on its rusty walls. Anyone looking for a metaphor that sums up Haiti in 2008 could do worse.

“Anything in this square should be beautiful, not like this,” says Jean-Michel Vernet, a 35-year-old construction worker relaxing in the park below the tower. “It gives us a bad image. We should be able to demonstrate that we’re capable of finishing what we start.” M

ON THE WEB: For an even closer look, check out the expanded photo gallery at