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Prime Minister Stephan Harper speaks next to Haiti's President Rene Preval during a news conference in Port-au-Prince Feb. 15, 2010. (STR/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephan Harper speaks next to Haiti's President Rene Preval during a news conference in Port-au-Prince Feb. 15, 2010. (STR/Reuters)

Canada pledges to help house Haitian government Add to ...

Stephen Harper promises that the pressures of fighting a $56-billion Canadian deficit will not interfere with his promise to assist in the long-term reconstruction of Haiti.

The Prime Minister, who is on a two-day trip to the island nation where bodies still lie under the rubble of last month's earthquake, arrived with a promise of $12-million to put a temporary roof over the federal government in Haiti.

The administration has operated in a single-storey police station and held meetings under a mango tree since the disaster levelled much of the infrastructure.

Mr. Harper previously pledged that Canada would play an integral role in Haitian relief and development for at least the next decade.

"It is strongly supported by the Canadian people," Mr. Harper said of the commitment. "So even with the tighter fiscal situation we have in years to come, we will still have the ability to set priorities. Haiti will be a priority."

Still, it will have to compete with domestic expenditures as the federal and provincial governments in Canada deal with a post-recession squeeze.

Mr. Harper, who is the first leader from a major donor country to visit Haiti since the disaster, did not come with bags of cash. The money announced Monday is small. This country will need billions of dollars to restore even the impoverished life it knew before the ground shook and the buildings collapsed.

And it's not a new commitment. It is part of $555-million that the Canadian government set aside in 2006 for Haitian development.

But Mr. Harper and Haitian President René Préval, who met for a short while in a tent at the Port-au-Prince airport, say the funding is part of long-term reconstruction effort to correct problems, many of which existed long before the quake.

"We had to seize on this opportunity not just to rebuild, but to rethink, to remodel Haiti," said Mr. Préval, adding that the restructured nation will be less centralized around the capital.

The fact that Haiti could have been so crumbled by one natural disaster, he said, "is the result of a policy of putting everything in Port-au-Prince to the neglect of the provinces."

Mr. Harper will travel Tuesday to the smaller communities of Jacmel and Leogane, where Canadian troops are spearheading relief efforts.

"I am here on the ground to see some of the devastation for myself, and some of the challenges. We know they are immense," Mr. Harper told reporters.

The earthquake, which claimed an estimated 212,000 lives, was one of a string of disasters that have rocked the Caribbean island and Haitians' faith in the ability of their politicians to rebuild.

Mr. Préval's job has certainly been more difficult since the earthquake destroyed most government buildings, including the presidential palace.

The funding announced Monday will provide a headquarters for one year for key ministries and public servants. Construction will begin as soon as a location is chosen.

Mr. Harper said the new centre will give the Haitian government the capacity to work with the international community to develop a long-term plan. A major donors' conference is scheduled for New York in March, and Canada, he said, wants to ensure that Haiti can "contribute forcefully."

To this point, Mr. Harper said, the international community can "in a very makeshift way."

But that will change in the coming months, he said. Technical conferences are being held before the New York meeting and a plan is being developed.

Haitian redevelopment "will not happen overnight," Mr. Harper said, "but I think all of the steps are being taken."

Canada has so far pledged $85-million in emergency aid to Haiti, and promised to match donations made by individuals before Friday night. By last Thursday night, Canadians had donated $154-million to 14 charities, of which $128-million was eligible for matching funds.

Mr. Harper flew by helicopter Monday afternoon to HMCS Athabaskan where he spent the night, a route that took him over Port-au-Prince where tent encampments sprawl over any small bit of open ground and multi-storey buildings lie flattened.

One of them is the Montana hotel where the bodies of six Canadians are still believed to be under the rubble.

The Canadian military notes that progress has been made since it arrived in the days after the disaster. After treating nearly 14,000 patients at its field hospitals, long queues for medical assistance are dwindling.

Security is not a problem, Maj. Richard Moffett, who is helping to co-ordinate Canada's response, said at a media briefing. And the need for food and water are largely being met in the areas outside Port-au-Prince that are under Canadian control.

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