Canadian celebs continue Haiti appeals, aid efforts

A year after Haiti's devastating earthquake, entertainers like Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis and Montreal band Arcade Fire remain leaders in the continuing efforts to rebuild the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Canadian-born filmmaker Paul Haggis, seen in London in October, founded Artists for Peace and Justice in 2009 after meeting a priest and community organizer who has built a hospital, orphanage and schools for children living in Haitian slums. ((Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images))

After Haiti's devastating earthquake last January, entertainers were among those leading the way in donations and encouraging support of relief efforts.

A year later, Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis and the Grammy-nominated Montreal band Arcade Fire remain leaders in the continuing efforts to rebuild the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

"The world's forgotten about Haiti already," the London, Ont.-born, L.A.-based Haggis, told CBC News. "It's our job to slowly remind people that they're still there and not to forget."

The writer-director behind the Oscar-winning drama Crash was first inspired to fundraise for Haiti three years ago. He founded his group Artists for Peace and Justice after meeting priest and community organizer Father Rick Frechette, who built a free hospital, schools and an orphanage to support children growing up in Haiti's slums.

While large-scale reform is an admirable goal for large, professional organizations, it's also valuable to support smaller groups and individuals dedicated to enacting solutions quickly and efficiently, Haggis said.

"I think the 'big fix' is hugely important, and I really admire people who are working on it," he said. "But those are big institutions that need to move and deal with corruption and other things that are endemic with Haiti ... I just want to build a school."

Haggis's group has done just that, opening the Academy for Peace and Justice, a free middle and high school for poor Haitian children. Though it's currently operating in temporary structures on land recently purchased by the group, permanent facilities are being planned for its nearly 400 students and a music school is also in the works.

"[People] keep saying things can't get worse in Haiti, and they do," Haggis said. "There's no choice [but to stay positive] ... You make the impact you can, and you support the people who are the real heroes there."

Régine Chassagne, left, and Win Butler, from the Canadian band Arcade Fire have raised funds for Haiti by matching donations from fans and concertgoers. ((Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images))
For several years, Arcade Fire's Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne have also supported an on-the-ground effort: Partners in Health, an organization with more than 20 years' experience delivering services that combine medical care with education and training about sanitation, water and agriculture in countries like Haiti, Mexico and Peru.

Quebec-born Chassagne, the child of Haitians who immigrated to Canada during the 1960s, also co-founded Kanpe (after the Creole term for "stand up") with businesswoman Dominique Anglade. The charity teams up with established groups in Haiti (like Partners in Health and micro-finance institution Fonkoze) to help citizens pursue education, good health and financial independence.

"It's something really important to us to find organizations really working with each other and providing co-ordinated services for Haitians [to allow them] to create their own lives for themselves, rather than just giving them food," said Butler.

He expressed frustration that some of the funds pledged to Haiti in 2010 have yet to arrive.

Appeals to friends, fans

In the past year, both Arcade Fire and Haggis have had success mixing their professional lives with their charitable efforts in Haiti.

Actor Sean Penn, left, speaks to actresses Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore and filmmaker Paul Haggis, far right, during a visit to a camp for internally displaced persons managed by Penn and his Jenkins-Penn Humanitarian Relief Organization in Port-au-Prince in April 2010. ((Kevork Djansezian/Artists For Peace And Justice/Getty Images))
Haggis, for instance, has raised more than $7 million US for Haiti, according to trade publication Hollywood Reporter.

He jokingly admitted to initially strong-arming his Hollywood colleagues into making donations after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. However, he praised many of them for stepping up and committing to donations of $50,000 US a year for a five-year period. Among those who have donated are Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

"These are movie stars who aren't even used to reaching into their wallets to pay for lunch," Haggis quipped to CBC News.

Arcade Fire fans helped with donations in a variety of ways, including by text message and by voluntarily paying an additional $1 for concert ticket. The band matched the $1 million raised from fans with their own funds.

"We've really found a lot of ways to build charity into our work," said Butler, who learned about Haiti's history and culture from his wife and says he draws inspiration from its musical and artistic traditions. "I think that way of thinking about it can be applied [whether] you're a baker or a policeman."

Those who have spent time in Haiti since the quake — Haggis is planning to return in February while Arcade Fire is slated to go back again in March — praise the indomitable resilience of its people, despite the massive struggle to survive and the rebuilding that faces them.

In the slums, according to Haggis, Haitians who literally have nothing remain industrious, "pushing a wreck of an old car to reclaim the metal, searching through rubble for this or that ... People really and truly have a will to help themselves."

Driving through collapsed buildings of Port-au-Prince more than six months after the earthquake, Butler recalled seeing former grocery store owners who built a tent over the rubble of their former site and had tentatively begun doing business again.

"There's an incredible fortitude where people are really trying to do the best they can, without any expectation that anyone will help them," he said.