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Montreal a key stop on Haitian campaign trail

The candidate for president of Haiti was making campaign promises and trolling for support - 3,000 kilometres from home, in a city where no one can vote for her.

Mirlande Manigat wasn't in Montreal in error. In fact, for serious contenders for the leadership of Haiti, the city has become an inescapable election whistle stop.

"It's a pleasure for me to be here," the candidate said at the start of a press conference on Friday at a downtown restaurant, decorated with Haitian flags and campaign posters. "I am here in Montreal to meet my compatriots."

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Ms. Manigat's presence in Canada underscores the crucial role played by expatriate Haitians in the political course of their troubled homeland, a bond strengthened in the aftermath of last year's crippling earthquake.

"Montreal is not Haiti, but everywhere that Haitians live it's a little extension of Haiti," Mrs. Manigat told The Globe and Mail as she raced to one of numerous media interviews on Friday. "Even if Haitians who live here don't have the right to vote … they can ask family and friends to take a position and vote for X or Y. I have come here to inform them and share my vision."

The March 20 runoff pits Ms. Manigat, a former first lady and constitutional scholar, against populist former singer Michel Martelly. The second round of voting comes after elections Nov. 28 were marred by violence and fraud and their results disputed.

With only two weeks to go, both Ms. Manigat and Mr. Martelly spent part of the final stretch stumping for financial and political support among exiled Haitians in North America. Mr. Martelly this week was in Miami, home to another large Haitian community. Last year, he too travelled to Montreal.

Ms. Manigat, whose husband was briefly president in 1988 before being ousted in a coup, is typical of Haitian citizens in at least one respect: She also has family members in Montreal, with a brother, two uncles and several other relatives in the city. She estimates she has been to Montreal more than 20 times.

In a bid to appeal for émigrés' support, she pledged to seek a revision of the Haitian constitution to allow dual citizenship; Currently, Haitians have to renounce their citizenship if they become citizens of another country, meaning they cannot vote in their homeland.

Yet even without casting a single ballot, the 100,000-strong Haitian community in Montreal holds an outsize influence on Haiti's political future. Ms. Manigat, the front-runner after the first round of voting, courted Haitian Montrealers on Friday as though they were important constituents.

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She spelled out her views on education and other matters at the press conference. A $250-a-head fundraiser was planned at a swank eatery in the evening. On Saturday, she is to hold a rally at a large community hall and give an interview to CPAM, a commercial radio station that serves Haitian Montrealers and is followed over the Internet in Haiti.

"The message I want to deliver is that this election is a turning point. Haitians have a choice between two very dissimilar candidates," Ms. Manigat said in an interview, adding, "I am the best choice."

In the politically ebullient Haitian diaspora of Montreal, Ms. Manigat's arrival provided more grist for debate. CPAM was holding lively open-line discussions about the election and plugging Ms. Manigat's Saturday rally. Callers held forth about the pros and cons of the candidacies of Ms. Manigat and Mr. Martelly.

"We have very close links with Haiti and we know we can hold some sway over the vote," said Jean Ernest Pierre, a Haitian-born Montreal lawyer and the director of CPAM. "In the next few weeks, we will work the phones a lot and influence people - our families, our friends. We can call and say: 'This is our view.' And we Haitians love to talk politics."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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