'Change will happen': Montreal's Haitian community marks emotional anniversary of devastating earthquake

Montreal's Haitian community gathered today for a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and reshaped Quebec's relationship with the Caribbean nation.

Premier, prime minister issue statements on 10th anniversary of the tragedy that killed an estimated 230,000

Two women embrace during an event to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Ten years after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000 people, hundreds gathered in Montreal Sunday evening to remember those who died and to look toward the future of the nation and its diaspora. 

"Most of them didn't have any funeral, so it's very important for us to remember those people," said Marjorie Villefranche, who's been director general of the Maison d'Haiti non-profit since the earthquake. 

She said even a decade later, Haitians around the world are still traumatized by the disaster. 

"When we think about the earthquake, when we talk about it, we are crying," Villefranche said.

The ceremony, which was held in Montreal's Saint-Michel neighbourhood, capped off a weekend of speeches, screenings and panel discussions about the disaster.

Montreal was already home to one of the largest communities of Haitian ex-pats before the earthquake. In the immediate aftermath, the province eased immigration regulations and welcomed a further 4,500 refugees.

The tragedy was felt throughout Quebec society. 

Former Liberal deputy premier Dominique Anglade lost both her parents in the earthquake. Her father, Georges Anglade, was a well-known writer and prominent Haitian activist.

Dancers perform during an event to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Antoine Craan, one Quebec's first black professional soccer players, was killed by debris outside his office in Port-au-Prince. He had returned to Haiti to advise the Ministry of Sport. 

Serge Marcil, a former provincial cabinet and later a federal Liberal MP, was killed when the hotel where he was staying collapsed.

Anglade was one of dozens of politicians present at the commemoration, standing alongside Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and several of her National Assembly colleagues. 

Nearly every person of Haitian descent at the event knew someone who died on Jan. 12, 2010. 

One of them was Quebec's Minister of International Relations and Francophonie, Nadine Girault. She announced Quebec will donate $50,000 into activities for youth of Haitian diaspora. 

"This country is our partner in Francophonie," Girault said. 

Before 5 p.m., a moment of silence was observed as dignitaries and survivors of the earthquake stood onstage. 

A drum circle began shortly after, and audience members were asked to say the names of people who died in the disaster. 

Cries of "ayibobo," a Haitian expression or joy, pain and prayer, could be heard throughout the ceremony. 

A couple surveys the damage to homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Jan. 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Messages from Legault, Trudeau  

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Quebec Premier François Legault called the earthquake "one of the saddest pages of recent history."

He added: "This tragedy is also a Quebec tragedy. The significant Haitian community in Quebec testifies to that. Despite the time that's passed, the pain hasn't diminished. Today, we have a duty to remember."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a statement Sunday to mark the anniversary. 

"Over the last decade, the Haitian people have shown incredible resilience in the face of challenges and obstacles, as they continue to work toward a better tomorrow," Trudeau said. 

"As steadfast partners and friends, Canada remains committed in our support for the Haitian people."

According to the federal government, 58 Canadians were killed in the 2010 earthquake.

Former Liberal deputy premier Dominique Anglade, Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Mayor Sue Montgomery and Quebec Minister of International Relations and Francophonie Nadine Girault stand onstage at a commemoration of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. (Claire Loewen/CBC)

Questions over aid

Although the commemoration was important for everyone there, some Haitian Montrealers expressed frustration. 

After the earthquake, billions in international aid poured into Haiti. A decade later, many in the country still don't have basic necessities such as clean drinking water.

Frantz Voltaire, a Haitian Montrealer and researcher who organized a series of conferences for the commemoration, said he wants a global inquiry into the aftermath of the disaster. 

"They talk about $11 billion that was committed to Haiti. How much money did Haiti receive?" Voltaire asked. 

He says more research needs to be done before more money is injected into the country.

"If not, we repeat the same errors of the past," Voltaire said. 

Villefranche said going forward, people who want to help should listen to the needs of the population — and be patient. 

Maison d'Haiti director general Marjorie Villefranche speaks during an interview at an event to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Haiti quake, in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"Go to the NGOs that really reach the population," she said. "Changes come slowly. Maybe we won't see the difference in our lifetime, but change will happen." 

For now, Villefranche said, the important thing is to remember the people who were lost in the earthquake. 

"So many people disappeared. It's really sad. This is why it's so important to think about each of them." 

With reporting from CBC's Simon Nakonechny


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