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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

Our Haitian connection Add to ...

The earthquake that devastated Haiti had strong repercussions in Quebec for, in many ways, the battered Caribbean country is part of the enlarged family of Quebeckers. Not only is Montreal home to more than 100,000 people of Haitian descent, but despite the spectacular differences - Haiti is an island of misery in the prosperous northern hemisphere - the links are old, close and solid.

For much of the 20th century, French-Canadian missionaries worked in Haiti. There was no sizable religious congregation that didn't have at least one outpost on the island - and their work, far from being limited to spreading Catholicism in a society where voodoo rituals were widely practised, more often than not focused on social issues. They built and maintained health clinics, schools and so on. These activities continue, but the missionaries of the past have been replaced by humanitarian organizations. Haiti is the country where Canadian NGOs are the most active.

Then, of course, there is language. Although Creole is the popular dialect in Haiti, French is the official language and the language of schooling. So it was quite natural that, starting in the 1950s, Quebec became the haven of choice for the thousands of middle-class Haitians fleeing François Duvalier's corrupt and brutal regime. Other waves of immigration followed, facilitated by the fact that the Haitian community, led by worldly and educated expats, had already developed its own institutions in perfect accordance with Quebec's laws and lifestyle.

Today, the Haitians are arguably the most thoroughly integrated immigrant community in Montreal. They are in every field - medicine, accounting, business, academia, technology. Georges Anglade, who died in the earthquake along with his wife, Mireille (they kept a house in Port-au-Prince), was a geographer and writer who arrived in Canada in 1969 and became one of the first professors of the newly founded Université du Québec à Montréal.

The less educated immigrants are concentrated in the taxi business, where they thrive. They know the city by heart. They buy their own taxi licences as soon as they can, and they keep their cars meticulously clean. And they're nice, smiling and polite. The mother of a friend used to ask for a Haitian driver whenever she needed a taxi; she was old and frail, and the Haitians, with their traditional respect for the elderly, would always help her in and out of the car.

But nowhere is Haitian Montreal more visible than in the arts and the media. If Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is the star figure of this group, countless artists and writers of Haitian origin have become household names. Novelist Stanley Péan, for example, is president of the Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois, the province's writers union. Luck Mervil and Gregory Charles are hugely popular performers. But no one has more clout these days than Dany Laferrière, the congenial and talented writer who recently won the Prix Médicis, one of France's most prestigious literary awards, for his novel L'Énigme du retour. Both Haiti and Quebec rejoiced with equal gusto - for if Mr. Laferrière was born and raised in Haiti, the country that inspired most of his work, it is in Montreal, where he immigrated in 1976 at the age of 23, that he started his writing career.

Ironically, Mr. Laferrière arrived in Haiti the day before the earthquake struck, to participate in an international literary festival that was to have included more than 50 writers from around the world. For once, there was going to be a "positive" event in Haiti - a celebration of the country's pride in its cultural achievement. (A little-known fact, buried in the usual bad news about the country's enduring poverty: 12 Haitian writers won literary prizes last year). And then the earth moved, burying the literary festival under the debris. (Mr. Laferrière was lucky, and returned to Montreal on Friday.)

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