Missing the point

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am

The tiny smudge of a Caribbean country called Haiti has been Canada's primary foreign policy preoccupation in the western hemisphere for 20 years. We've poured money, material and manpower into the troubled island since the end of the dictatorship of the Duvalier family in the 1980s. We've absorbed 150,000 Haitian immigrants, assisted its farmers, healed its sick, supported (and criticised) its governments. We've even appointed a brilliant and beautiful Haitian-Canadian woman as our governor-general and figurative head of state.

But Haiti remains an unqualified disaster. It's one of the few places on Earth that offers barely a glimmer of hope for a better future. Once a tourist attraction, it now depends on charity and remittances from Haitians rich enough to flee. At a time when the world's rich nations are talking about ways of rescuing the entire continent of Africa, they're unable to do anything significant for a tropical island of only 8 million people, just 90 minutes' flying time from Miami.

For 8,000 UN peacekeepers from three dozen countries, Port-au-Prince, its capital, is a virtual war zone. I recently spent an afternoon with a detachment of Jordanian soldiers fortified behind sandbags in an old indoor market they've dubbed 'El Alamo'. Gangs loyal to the deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, fire constantly on the peacekeepers with automatic weapons. The soldiers are reluctant to return fire, because the neighbourhood is filled with women and children. The perplexed Muslim soldiers cannot even answer shots coming from a nearby Christian church; they're worried about offending another religion. Six peacekeepers have already been killed.

Meanwhile, elite policemen from Canada, China and a host of other countries are trying to turn a corrupt, trigger-happy national police force into an effective arm of law enforcement in time for elections later this year. It's an exercise in futility - the police believe arresting criminals is a waste of time, so they execute them, or turn a blind eye as civilians armed with machetes engage in lynchings. Haiti's justice minister shrugs and calls it public 'misbehaviour'.

I came home expecting Canadians to be seething about the fatal dysfunction in a country we have such strong ties with. They weren't. Haiti isn't anywhere on our moral radar screen. Instead, there's an absurd debate in the national media about whether the new governor-general, Michaelle Jean, is enough of a Canadian nationalist. (She and her husband may or may not have voted for Quebec separatism in a 1995 referendum). The debate is an insult to her family's struggle to make a new life here, and to Canada's humanitarianism. Haiti deserves better.