Ottawa nixed Haiti mission extension

A United Nations official says the Canadian government turned down a plea to extend military relief effort in Haiti after last year's earthquake.

Canada turned down request to keep military engineers longer: UN official

Canadian soldiers help following the earthquake in Léogâne, Haiti, last year. ((CBC))

A United Nations official says the Canadian government turned down a plea to extend military relief effort in Haiti after last year's earthquake.

Canada was widely praised for rushing to provide emergency help, including clean water, security and medical care, following the devastating temblor last Jan. 12.

Armed with heavy equipment, Canadian military engineers also cleared rubble and helped Haitians reopen their roads, particularly in the hard-hit areas around the cities of Léogâne and Jacmel.

But despite attempts by the UN and local authorities to persuade Ottawa to keep the engineers in Haiti beyond the end of Canada's relief mandate, the military packed up and left.

"I think there was a strong request that they stay on," Nigel Fisher, the UN's head of humanitarian aid in Haiti, told The Canadian Press in an interview from Port-au-Prince.

"Many felt that they wished they had stayed because they were extremely effective."

Canada's original mandate was to provide a rapid, short-term response and the UN says there was no obligation to extend the mission. Still, Fisher says, it would have been better if Canada had stuck around longer than a couple of months.

The earthquake in Haiti last January killed more than 200,000 people, including 58 Canadians. ((Canadian Press))

"The good thing is, they were very effective," Fisher said. "Could they have stayed longer? Many people felt it would have been great if they had."

But International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda says that once Léogâne and Jacmel had been stabilized, the mission shifted to more of an international effort led by Haiti's government.

"I know that Canada's always being requested, wherever it works, to continue with its work," Oda said.

"If informal requests were made, it's in recognition [of] the great work that the Canadian Forces did in those six weeks."

Oda noted that some members of Canada's military, which dispatched 2,000 troops to Haiti in the quake's aftermath, are still on the ground.

"Canada did stay — Canada is still there," she said.

Federal ministers, including Oda, will be making public appearances this week to highlight the Canadian government's response.

Haiti's reconstruction has been a slow process following the quake, which killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. The disaster also killed 58 Canadians.

A year later, more than one million people are still crowded in filthy tent camps, which have been infiltrated by a deadly cholera outbreak, thieves and rapists.

People in the tent cities say the situation is becoming desperate.

A city of debris

Former governor general Michaëlle Jean, now a special envoy to Haiti for a UN organization, said recently that Haitians are frustrated that they have seen few signs of their country's reconstruction.

An aerial view of Léogâne shows destruction after the earthquake. ((Canadian Press))

The Haitian-born Jean, who was a visible part of Canada's early relief efforts in Haiti, travels there Wednesday in her first visit since assuming her new role as a UNESCO envoy.

Her previous visit, as the Queen's representative last spring, brought her to the two main destinations for Canadian emergency aid: the coastal cities of Jacmel and Léogâne.

Léogâne remains awash in debris. Locals here are grateful for the Canadian military's major presence for the first couple of months after the quake.

But now that the initial wave of assistance has long since passed, the people say they still need help.

"They gave us things to support the population," Junie Jasmin, 18, said of work by the Canadian military. "But they didn't stay for very long."

Jasmin has been living in a tent since the quake. She sells popcorn and hard candy out of a small shack at the edge of a sprawling homeless camp in the heart of Léogâne.

She said little has improved over the last year and she expresses incredulity when asked what she hopes for next.

"Hope? Nobody knows," Jasmin said. "We don't know what's coming tomorrow … things are very, very tough."

City near quake epicentre

Léogâne, about 35 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince, sits near the epicentre of last year's earthquake.

Canadian soldiers carrying medical supplies, potable water and food landed on Léogâne's beach about a week after the quake destroyed 90 per cent of the city.

At the time, foreign aid had been flowing into Port-au-Prince, while people in rural communities like Léogâne feared they had been forgotten.

Léogâne's mayor praised Canada for helping the community through the initial crisis with things like medical care and food, but he said long-term problems persist.

Alexis Santos said Canadians did a lot of heavy lifting in Léogâne after the quake, which included clearing rubble from the streets, reinforcing city hall and pulling debris out of the canals.

"A lot was done because the city was completely broken — getting around was impossible," he said in an interview. But a year later, a lot of broken concrete still chokes the city and Santos said it can't be removed with shovels and wheelbarrows.

The UN estimates that only half of the debris in Léogâne has been cleared.

The vast needs of Léogâne's 130,000 citizens are no secret to people who pass the city.

"Please Help Us Rebuilded [sic] We Lost Everything," reads a roadside billboard that greets visitors as they approach the edge of town.

Canada has committed more than $1 billion to Haiti through its regular foreign development initiatives and in new money promised since the quake.

A spokesman for the UN says Canada's exit from Léogâne was smooth, as groups from South Korea and Japan moved in to pick up the slack.

"But of course every time you lose an engineering contingent or something like that, you're essentially losing a bit of capacity," said Michel Bonnardeaux.

"And that's why we'd hoped that they would stay a little bit longer because, given the enormous amount of work that had to be done, any help is welcomed.

"Anything helps, particularly in Haiti, where there's very limited capacity to deal with that stuff."