Montreal's Haitian community in shock after president shot dead

Haitian Montrealers were full of questions Wednesday after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse.

Community struggles to absorb news of assassination and what it could mean for the future of Haiti

Military vehicles block the entrance to Pétion-Ville, the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood where Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home early on Wednesday. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

The phone lines on CPAM 1410, Montreal's Haitian community station, were full of questions Wednesday morning after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, with people worried about the future of their families and their home country.

Moïse was shot dead by unidentified attackers in his private residence overnight in what the government described as a "barbaric act." His wife, Martine Moïse, was reportedly injured in the attack.

The assassination coincided with a wave of gang violence in the capital Port-au-Prince. Armed groups have battled with police and one another for control of the streets in recent months, turning many districts of the capital into no-go zones.

"The lines are open and people who didn't believe this could happen are surprised. They're waiting for the latest news — whether [Moïse's] wife died or not," Jean Ernest Pierre, the president of the radio station, told Radio-Canada's Tout un matin

"We're waiting. We're following Haiti's rhythm."

Jean Ernest Pierre, the president of CPAM 1410, Montreal's Haitian community station, says several people were calling in Wednesday morning with questions and concerns about the assassination. (AFP via Getty Images)

Frantz Duval, who heads Le Nouvelliste newspaper in Port-au-Prince, said the city was shaken but quiet Wednesday morning.

"People stayed home. There's almost no traffic in the streets, no pedestrians walking," Duval told Tout un matin

"Even the state media is only playing a concert of classical music, broadcasting no information about what happened or what's going on."

In Montreal, where more than 150,000 people of Haitian descent make up a vibrant diaspora, some feared even more instability in Haiti could follow Moïse's assassination, as few of the country's democratic institutions have been functioning as they should. 

Jean Numa Goudou, who runs a Montreal newspaper covering the Haitian community, said he is trying to understand what is going on and what could happen next. 

"The first thing is: if the president can be assassinated in his home, what of ordinary citizens?" Goudou said. 

Goudou pointed to ongoing violence in Haiti, where protests against Moïse's extended stay in power have been punctuated by violent acts by gangs, whose hold on poor areas continues to grow.

"I still have family in Haiti, too. I have two brothers and cousins and friends," he said. 

Marjorie Villefranche, the director general of Maison d'Haïti, an organization that works with Montreal's Haitian community, says people in the city are shocked. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC)

Marjorie Villefranche, the director general of Maison d'Haïti, an organization that works with the Montreal community, said people in the city are scrambling to understand who is responsible for Moïse's death and whether potential violence could affect family and friends. 

"This is the fear of the population — what kind of violence and what kind of chaos could take place? The country was already chaotic but now it could be terrible," Villefranche said. 

Frantz André, a well-known advocate for asylum seekers in Montreal, said it was painful for him and his family that the country they fled decades ago was still in turmoil.

He said it was especially hard to grapple with, when thinking about Haiti's history of freeing itself from slavery and French colonial rule at the end of the 18th century, and declaring independence in 1804. 

"I have a mother who is 91 years old and we've been here since 1961. She was hoping to see the country improve. Daily, she is listening to Haitian radio and she calls me with pain and with tears sometimes," André said. 

André said he hoped the gravity of the situation in Haiti would push the international community to help instead of standing by, but he also fears the vacuum of power could make way for heavy intervention, or a kind of occupation, that could only make things worse.

"The diaspora has to mobilize itself. We have to send a message to Canada that it has to take an active part in solving the situation," André said, adding that he hoped the federal government would do so in distancing itself from other foreign entities that might see a gain in the situation. 

Frantz André, who fled Haiti with his family as a boy, has helped many asylum seekers from Haiti. He hopes Canada will speed up family reunifications, given the situation there. (Chloe Ranaldi/CBC)

André has helped dozens of asylum seekers from Haiti, many of whom arrived in 2017 after former U.S. president Donald Trump threatened to deport refugees from several countries.

Due to a backlog in Canadian immigration, many have only recently been granted permanent residency, meaning hundreds were in limbo for four years, with close family members and even children remaining in Haiti. 

André would like Canada to respond by speeding up its processing of family reunification requests. 

"I think that's a good step and statement that Canada can make, that it's not happy with what is happening in Haiti," André said. "I'm asking Canada to be the Canada that I love."

'I don't think it can get worse'

Goudou said the country is deeply polarized.

"It's not like Jovenel Moïse was the only problem and that once he's gone all the problems will be fixed," Goudou said.

"Some thought there would be people in the streets — either happy, sad, or angry — but there's none of that." 

Duval, of Le Nouvelliste, said the assassination was a shock because, despite violence in the country, political opposition has taken the form of protests by mostly unarmed demonstrators. 

"The last time a president was killed was in 1915," Duval said, referring to the killing of Vilbrun Guillaume Sam on July 28, 1915.

Ernest Pierre says he hopes the assassination will prompt more help and intervention from the international community. 

"I don't think it can get worse. It's at a point where things can only be fixed," he said.

With files from Chloe Ranaldi, Radio-Canada, Reuters and Associated Press