British Columbia

Haiti athletes invited to Canada face visa obstacles

The organizer of an international basketball tournament for Indigenous players fears the Haiti team that was invited to play in the August games may not be permitted to enter Canada.

'Strong possibility' visas won't be granted,' says Canadian official in email

This Haitian basketball team, called Haiti Bongu, shown here in a Haitian tournament, was invited to play in an international Indigenous basketball tournament in Burnaby in August. (Johnson Petion)

The organizer of an international basketball tournament for Indigenous players to be held later this summer in Burnaby, B.C. fears the Haiti team may not be permitted to enter Canada.

Dave Wahl who coaches the Haida Gwaii men's amateur basketball team said a Canadian visa officer in Haiti told him in an email that it's unlikely the team will qualify for visas.

The news was a disappointment to Wahl, who has been organizing the tournament that will bring 16 basketball teams from across the globe to Simon Fraser University in August.

It's also a blow to the Haitian coach and his players, who have their hearts set on competing in Canada.

Sebastian Petion said his players have been training hard.

"This is big," Petion said, referring to the tournament. "It's like the Super Bowl for us."

The HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, will take place August 10-13 at Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus.

It was organized by Wahl, after his team, the Skidegate Saints, travelled to New Zealand last summer to compete against a team of Indigenous Maori players.

The trip was a hit with his players, who not only got a chance to play abroad, but also learn the culture of another Indigenous society.

Haiti's participation in doubt

Wahl wanted to reciprocate but also wanted to bring other Indigenous players from around the world. He and the Maori coach organized the tournament and SFU agreed to host the tournament.

Teams from Western Canada, the U.S.,  Africa and the Caribbean are scheduled to play. 

Desmond Collinson, a player with the Skidegate Saints, fields the ball in a game at the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre in Prince Rupert. The HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge was organized by the Saints after they travelled to New Zealand last summer to compete against a team of Indigenous Maori players. (Marie Octaviano)

But there was a snag with the Haitian team.

On June 8, Wahl received an email from a Canadian official in Port-au-Prince, suggesting the Haitian team may not qualify for visas.

In the email, which was sent to Wahl and Petion, the official cited poor economic conditions in Haiti. The email was signed by Gary Hawkes, the Canadian immigration program manager in Haiti. 

"The fact is that there is a strong probability, based on the information before me, and based on the extremely poor country conditions existing in Haiti, that visas will NOT be approved in these circumstances," Hawkes wrote in the email.

"You should also be aware that no refunds may be made even when visa applications are refused and so there is evidently a strong financial risk in the team moving forward with visa applications."

Despite the discouraging email, Petion went ahead and applied for the visas on Tuesday.

​Hawkes did not reply to an emailed request for an interview.

But an official with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada suggested the visa officer's discouraging advice may have been a misunderstanding.

In an email to CBC, Immigration spokeswoman Lisa Filipps wrote: "Visa officers at Canadian missions overseas also try to provide information and guidance to applicants who wish to come to Canada.

"That is what the visa officer was trying to do in this case, but there was clearly a misunderstanding, which may have caused confusion."

Filipps said immigration officials have not yet received visa requests from the Haitian team.

Setback for tournament

Wahl said the initial email from Hawkes was a setback for the tournament and for the Haitian players.

The coach had been working for months to raise money to bring the Haitian team to the tournament.

A team sponsor in Haiti has agreed to pay the airline tickets for the 16-person team. Petion also started a GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $5,000 for expenses.

"It was upsetting to me in the sense that it said: 'You shouldn't even try,' " Wahl said.

"It just made me think: 'Why would this be so difficult?' Clearly these people have figured out the funds to travel. They have been invited.

"They're going to be hosted by a community that has worked really hard to get them here."

Petion described the email from the Canadian visa officer as "harsh."

He said his Haitian basketball team has provided an outlet for the players in a country that was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.

The team has attracted a corporate sponsor, Bongu, a grocery chain and has a devoted, growing following, he said.

Petion said the message from the Canadian official suggests the players are at risk of trying to flee their impoverished country. He said that's not the case.

"Our team has been together for five years. We are connected to Haiti."

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