MOVED TO TEARS, FORMER GG REVEALS HER PLANS TO SAVE HAITI
(Toronto Star) - By Catherine Porter
OTTAWA -It was Marie-Eden who sealed it. She’s the vibrant daughter Michaelle Jean adopted from Haiti — and the reason Jean is devoting the next four years to rebuilding the country’s shattered schools.
“She could have been a restavek — a slave domestic,” Jean says of the now 11-year-old, cupping her cheek and looking out the window at the snow. “She could have been illiterate. Dead.
“What about Lovely and the many, many, many, many other Lovelys? Two little girls with the same potential and not the same opportunities. That is terrible. That, I cannot live with.”
The former governor general began her new role as UNESCO’s special envoy to Haiti last month.
In her first sit-down interview since taking the new job, Jean spent two hours telling the Star her dreams and fears for the country of her birth, her frustrations with the lagging reconstruction and her hopes to see it righted.
She started the conversation in tears, over the violence that erupted between opposing political groups in the streets of Port-au-Prince this week.
“I think the reason we cry, it goes beyond sadness,” Jean said, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex.
“It’s the frustration of seeing things being always in jeopardy. It’s like a Shakespearian tragedy, Haiti.
“I find it totally immoral,” she continued. “When we have more than one million people still living in camps, men wandering around bored with nothing to do, little girls being raped, women being raped and the cholera. It’s awful, amid all this, to have leaders fighting over their ambition to power.”
Jean worries the resignation she hears on Canada’s streets about Haiti — what she calls “the ahhh” — will take hold, and after 11 months of half-heartedly trying to get the country get back on its feet the world will abandon Haiti as irredeemable because of a few thugs on its streets.
“These guys need to sit down and come together and stop that massacre because of what’s at stake,” she says of the three candidates still hoping become president. “I believe Haitians and Haiti deserves better.”
Jean also blasted the international community for running an unfocused reconstruction effort that has largely omitted Haitians — a sentiment echoed by a dozen Haitian members of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, an international panel charged with overseeing the country’s rebuilding led by former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
“Everybody has to question how we do things in Haiti,” says Jean, 53, lounging on a sunlit overstuffed chair in a boardroom at the University of Ottawa, where she plans to soon open her UN office. “Haiti is some kind of laboratory, with all kinds of aid experiments and projects. But the strategies never really delivered anything really constructive and sustainable.”
Instead of aid, Haitians need investment, Jean says. And they need to feel part of a central plan.
“People are tired and they are frustrated, and the line between frustration and anger is thin,” said Jean. “Anyone can play with that and use it. We see it happening right now.”
Jean grew up in a downtown neighbourhood not far from the now-crumpled presidential palace.
Her family fled to Quebec in 1968, after her father — a school principal — was picked up by Duvalier’s dreaded tonton macoutes and tortured, his body bloodied and face pulped, before being dumped outside the family home. Once in Canada, her mother left her father and raised Jean and her sister alone, often working two jobs. Jean excelled in school, becoming fluent in five languages and winning scholarships to study in Italy. Before being named governor general, she scaled the ranks at Radio-Canada, starting as the TV network’s first black reporter. You can see why former prime minister Paul Martin called her personal story “nothing short of extraordinary.” You can also see why she’s zeroed in on education in Haiti.
“This is a country where the vast majority is under 25. We have to keep the youth busy, provide the opportunities for skills and jobs,” Jean says. “We’re talking about a country where education has always been a priority in people’s minds since the plantations. People have always seen education as a means to emancipation and freedom.”
The job ahead is daunting. Haiti’s school system was broken long before the earthquake destroyed one-fifth of its schools. Although the right to free education is in the Haitian constitution, the government’s limited budget only covers 20 per cent of the country’s schools.
The rest are run privately, for profit, with little oversight. As a result, 40 per cent of the population never steps into a school and most who do drop out before Grade 6. The 10 per cent who make it to secondary school aren’t guaranteed to learn much: one-third of Haiti’s teachers never made it past Grade 9 themselves.
For most Haitians school is an unaffordable luxury, a dream. That’s why I enrolled Lovely Avelus, a little girl who survived the earthquake only to live in impoverished misery, in kindergarten.
Education experts in Haiti have drafted a $4.3 billion plan for free, quality primary education for every Haitian child by 2015, but so far only $500 million has been promised.
Jean has made it her “crusade” to raise the rest, counting on her trademark charm and worldly connections. Once the money is raised, UNESCO will coordinate the made-in-Haiti plan, she says.
“I’m not naïve. I know where the devil is. I also know what the country is capable of. It has to be ambitious — $4.3 billion is nothing, if you want to see a difference, if you really want to create hope.”
Jean decided to open her office in Ottawa and not Paris — home of the UNESCO headquarters — to be closer to home.
“The way Canadians responded, I think Canadians deserve to see how things are progressing. I am Canadian. I’m not Haitian,” she said, pinching the Order of Canada pin on her lapel and holding it out. “Part of my heart is there. Haiti has given me a lot. It’s made me the person I am, like Canada has. So I know there are things I can say, that some other people would not dare to say.”
Before the cholera outbreak, experts on the ground predicted it would take 10 years for Haiti to recover from the 7.0 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 on Jan. 12. Jean thinks it could take twice that time to establish a quality, Haitian-led universal school system. She asks that Canadians be patient. And generous.
“The world owes this to Haiti. Haiti has achieved something for humanity we can’t forget. It is the place in which slaves fought and triumphed over . . . slavery. When Haiti did that, they didn’t do it just for themselves. It was a legacy to humanity. But they paid a high price for that.”
The price: first an embargo by its major trading partners worried the Haitian success would inspire their own slaves to revolt; then a crippling retribution fee for “lost property” to its former slave owner, France. That fee — set in 1825 at 90 million gold francs — took more than a century to be paid.
“We the world, we humanity, owe to this little country that really left us the legacy of fraternity, freedom, liberation, equality, human dignity,” Jean says. “It means something. It’s about values.”
Jean is anxious to get started, on the ground. She planned to be in Haiti this week. But, given the street violence and the temporary closure of the national airport, her first trip as a UNESCO envoy was pushed back until January.
She’s like a mother, pacing the hospital halls, waiting for her child’s operation to be over — brimming with hopeful distress. “Haiti prend la tete beaucoup. My mind is full of Haiti,” she says.
“You remember me as governor general? I’m all about action.”