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Michaelle Jean listens during the Governor-General's Women's Conference at Rideau Hall on Sept 9, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit for The Globe and Mail)
Michaelle Jean listens during the Governor-General's Women's Conference at Rideau Hall on Sept 9, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit for The Globe and Mail)

Rebuilding Haiti must start in the classroom: Michaelle Jean Add to ...

With her sleeves rolled up, Michaelle Jean is laying the groundwork for what she hopes will lift her native Haiti from the rubble - once and for all.

But Canada's former governor general says lots of work remains nearly a year after an earthquake crumpled buildings and shattered lives in her homeland.

Ms. Jean, now a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, says it's difficult for Haitians to see tangible results of the country's sluggish reconstruction.

"People are very frustrated right now," Ms. Jean told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.

"Unfortunately, we will commemorate the earthquake one year later, and Haitians have not seen many signs that would make them believe that the work has begun."

Recent violence triggered by Haiti's contested presidential election and a deadly, ongoing cholera epidemic have compounded the challenges.

The population has been left "tired" and "traumatized," she said.

But Ms. Jean is optimistic the country will get back on its feet, even though tent cities still occupy public squares and food and drinking water remain scarce for many.

"The sum of the needs is incredible, but we should not be discouraged," said Ms. Jean, whose term as governor general ended in October.

"It's a work in progress and it's time for actions."

Ms. Jean says boosting support to small- and medium-sized businesses, rebuilding cultural treasures to encourage tourism and creating the country's first national land register are keys to Haiti's development.

But lasting reconstruction of the Caribbean nation will begin in the classroom, she insists.

A quality, universally accessible education system, Ms. Jean says, will empower Haitians to rebuild their country themselves.

"Afterwards, people can now say, 'We are the ones who did it,' and they can take ownership of it," said Ms. Jean, who was born in Port-au-Prince and moved to Canada as a child.

"Haitians want to be considered and recognized as being part of the solutions.

"If we don't do this, it will be a catastrophe, it will be business as usual."

In her new role with the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Ms. Jean is tasked with helping rebuild a long-impoverished country hit by a quake last Jan. 12 that killed more than 200,000 people and left more than a million homeless.

Ms. Jean recalled what it was like to see the damage up close last March, during her only visit to Haiti since the quake.

She walked past fallen homes and into vast encampments that were supposed to be temporary. Jolting scenes from the aftermath brought her to tears.

"I knew I would find a devastated country - evidently, the scale was beyond everything we could imagine once we were on the ground," said Ms. Jean, who hopes to return to Haiti soon, once the election crisis has subsided.

At the time, Ms. Jean says, the ordeal was cast by the international community as an opportunity to do things differently in Haiti, a country that has faced trade embargoes, brutal dictatorships and natural disasters since achieving independence 200 years ago.

For decades, the country's economy has relied heavily on foreign aid.

"It's going to work, we have other examples in the world," she said of Haiti's reconstruction.

Ms. Jean highlighted rapid rebuilding in the Sichuan region of China, where 90,000 people were killed in a 2008 quake. She also pointed to Rwanda, which was the scene of the 1994 genocide that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in 100 days.

"Sixteen years later you have Rwanda (and) Kigali is cleaner than Ottawa," said Ms. Jean, adding that Rwanda was rebuilt under a clear strategy.

Haiti's tumultuous past prompted many from its elite to flee the country over the years, including Ms. Jean's family. Today, dynamic members of its diaspora have landed in places like Canada and the United States.

"So, I think that in many ways, the rest of humanity also has a certain debt to Haiti, a moral debt."

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