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Members of Montreal's Haitian community hug and cry while watching news reports on TV at the Haitian-Canadian community centre in Montreal.Peter Mccabe

Haitian-Canadians tried desperately to reach family members in their homeland throughout the night, only to encounter broken phone lines. Those who did succeed in making contact heard bleak and dispiriting news.

One Montrealer who reached his father was told that electric poles had collapsed and there were dead in the street, Mireille Métellus, a volunteer at La Maison d'Haiti in Montreal, said last night. "People are calling us in tears. It's very painful. They can't get through to anyone."

The province of Quebec is home to the largest Haitian community in Canada, its roots in the province deepened by the shared French language. After several decades of immigration, its members have penetrated the highest reaches of public service, arts and sports, producing luminaries such as Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, award-winning author Dany Laferière and track star Bruny Surin.

The Haitian community in Quebec estimates its numbers at about 130,000, counting members of its second- and third-generation.

The ties between Canada and Haiti extends beyond the personal. Haiti is also the second-largest beneficiary of Canadian development aid; during a visit to Canada last month by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, Ottawa announced it would fund four projects aimed at strengthening security institutions in the Caribbean nation. Canada has already committed $555-million from 2006 to 2011 to bring "stability, sustainable development and prosperity" to Haiti, according to a federal government statement.

The earthquake represents another setback for the impoverished nation, already reeling from numerous natural disasters in recent years.

"We didn't need this. Ours is a country trying to rebuild, and now we have to start over at zero. We were at zero already," said Marjorie Villefranche, director of programming at La Maison d'Haiti.

She said the news she managed to collect from her homeland was horrifying. "From what we're told, it's complete chaos, everything has collapsed. People are hearing cries everywhere," she said. "We were told that cars have exploded and homes have fallen down. We're devastated."

Many other Haitian-Canadians in Montreal were trying to find out if family members had survived and were all right.

Eric Faustin, who works with aid groups in Haiti, had been in touch with various colleagues in Haiti until 3 p.m. yesterday.

Everything was fine. Then, when he heard the news of the earthquake, he tried immediately to reach his mother, who lives about 90 kilometres from the capital of Port-au-Prince.

He was unable to get through. "I don't know if her home held up. Most of the damage is in the capital, but you never know," he said. "This is a catastrophe," he said "It will swallow up all the advances we've been trying to make."