World·In Depth

Haiti quake's effects still felt by Canadians on anniversary of disaster

As Haiti continues to rebuild from the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 230,000 and displaced 1.5 million people, the disaster's legacy continues to have an impact on the lives of a number of Canadians, writes Sylvia Thomson.

As Haiti's rebuilding effort continues, earthquake's aftermath continues to affect people in Canada

Before the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake shook Haiti, Morgan Wienberg was a gifted high school senior in Whitehorse, Yukon. The 22-year-old now lives in Haiti, supporting young people and helping the country rebuild.

Before the huge earthquake rattled Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, Morgan Wienberg was a gifted high school senior in Whitehorse, Yukon — her class valedictorian — on track to go to veterinary school in Australia or study medicine at McGill. Two weeks after prom, she found herself in Haiti. 

The epicentre of the 7.0 quake was 25 kilometres from the densely populated city of Port au Prince, capital of the poorest country in the Americas. It killed more than 230,000 and displaced 1.5 million people.

The devastation and despair inspired Wienberg to travel to Haiti to help street kids and earthquake orphans.

"Sometimes people see things and try to separate them from their own lives but I couldn't do that," said Wienberg.

“I really just fell in love with the country and the lifestyle and the fulfillment of what I was doing.”

Twenty-two-year-old Morgan Wienberg (back row, centre) created a charity called Little Footprints, Big Steps that helps support street kids and earthquake orphans in Haiti.

Wienberg is just one of the Canadians whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the legacy of the disaster in Haiti five years ago. She deferred her McGill acceptance for three years before finally giving it up. She created a charity called Little Footprints, Big Steps and the 22-year-old is still hard at work helping Haitians rebuild.

“The main issue I deal with is reuniting kids with their families,” Wienberg said.

When she's able to find the families of orphaned children, she tells them her charity will pay tuition and clothing costs, and sometimes that’s enough to get the parents to take the children back.

Like Wienberg, many Canadians were inspired to give their time or money in 2010. The Canadian Red Cross alone took in $200 million in donations for Haiti. The Canadian government pledged $400 million at the high-profile international donors conference at the UN in March that year, and spent an additional $400 million or so of what was then Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) money in the country.

The work is far from finished, however.

Duncan Dee (left) got orphan Carlos Desir set up in a home for orphans called Zanmi Beni, or Blessed Friends, and helped support him and the home with his own money. Carlos (right) now calls Dee “Dad.”

Canada recently “re-affirmed Haiti as a country of focus for the Government of Canada’s international development efforts,” according to John Babcock, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Trade and Development.

But, he adds, the government is also “currently reviewing its long-term strategy of engagement with Haiti to ensure the achievement of tangible and sustainable results for the Haitian people, while being accountable to Canadian taxpayers. This long term approach will be anchored in accountability and coordination and will be announced once the proper conditions are in place.” 

And some of those who hoped Haiti would be built back better — to borrow a UN catch phrase from 2010 -- are disappointed that more hasn’t been accomplished. Thousands of homes have been rebuilt or repaired, but more than a quarter of a million people still lack permanent housing, according to a UN report. Poverty is still rampant, as are health problems such as cholera.

Carl, an orphan born just after the earthquake, was living at the Zanmi Beni home when Duncan Dee met him. The boy had club feet and wasn’t able to walk, so Dee and his wife Mary O’Neil brought Carl to their home in Ottawa to get him medical treatment for his condition.

While the level of long-term commitment by other nations to the rebuilding of Haiti is somewhat unclear five years after the disaster, individual Canadians such as Wienberg are still trying to make a personal impact, particularly on the lives of children in the poverty-stricken nation.

"I couldn't pretend I hadn't seen their suffering and go back to my life in Canada,” said Wienberg.

Duncan Dee is another Canadian committed to this cause.

He was the COO and Executive Vice-President of Air Canada in 2010. Part of his job was to oversee relief missions. When Dee saw a CBC News report by Paul Hunter about an under-supplied and under-staffed medical clinic near the airport and heard the screams of children being stitched up at the clinic without anaesthetic, he decided to do more than manage his relief flight two days later.

Christiane Pelchat visits the Serge Marcil orphanage she helps to support in Haiti.

“It was like a primal scream coming out of the national newscast,” said Dee.

“As a dad, when you see young kids suffering like that, I don’t think you really feel anger or frustration. You just feel a call to action and a call to do whatever you can to be a part of the solution."

Dee collected supplies from friends and colleagues and delivered them to the clinic a couple of days later, where he met Carlos Desir. The 11-year-old had been orphaned by the earthquake and was wandering the streets until one of the doctors invited him in.

Dee took a liking to Carlos, admiring the way he was taking charge of the freshly stocked supply tent. Dee went to work getting Carlos set up in a home for orphans called Zanmi Beni, or Blessed Friends, and helped support him and the home with his own money. Carlos now calls Dee “Dad.”

Another, younger orphan from Zanmi Beni who was born just after the earthquake calls Dee that, too.

Carl has club feet and wasn’t able to walk. Dee and his wife Mary O’Neill brought Carl to their home in Ottawa in May last year so they could oversee what they thought might be three to six months of medical treatments for his legs and feet. It now looks like Carl will live with them for another year at least, as his condition is more complicated than originally thought, and they make regular trips to the Shriner’s hospital in Montreal for medical appointments.

The Serge Marcil orphanage in Haiti

“Our focus is on the small picture,” said Dee, adding that while he may not be able to fix the widespread problems of Haiti, he can continue to help some of the 64 children who live at Zanmi Beni.

For Christiane Pelchat of Quebec, financing an orphanage in Etang Rey - a city in one of the poorest regions of Haiti - was her way of both contributing and dealing with her own grief.

Pelchat’s husband, former Liberal MP Serge Marcil, died in the Montana Hotel in Port au Prince. He had checked in just moments before the 4:53 p.m. earthquake. It took 10 days to recover his body from the ruins of the hotel, but Pelchat considers herself lucky to at least have been able to fly it home. The bodies of many others were either never found or identified.

After the funeral, Pelchat raised money for the Serge Marcil Foundation and donated $100,000 to fund the Serge Marcil orphanage.

Morgan Wienberg was invited to speak at the annual youth assembly at the UN in 2013 about her work in Haiti and the potential we all have to implement change.

“I wouldn’t have done the orphanage if there was no earthquake,” said Pelchat. “It helped with my grief. It’s like I’m continuing something he was concerned about.”

Morgan Wienberg, meanwhile, is also trying to spread the word about the need for people to act if they want to improve the lives of others in places like Haiti. She was invited to speak at the annual youth assembly at the UN in 2013, where she talked about her work and the potential we all have to drive change.

"Every single life you can impact, that's huge," said Wienberg. "Every child is connected to a family and connected to a community, so it's systemic change."


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