Crisis in Haiti: Should Canada Become More Involved?

Faced with a crisis that still paralyzes Haiti, some think that Canada should being do more to help the country. However, nothing is ever that simple…

By: /
27 May, 2024
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken co-hosts the Rising to the Challenge on Haiti Ministerial Meeting held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in February 2024. Image: US State Department Chuck Kennedy
Romain Chauvet
By: Romain Chauvet
Canadian journalist based in Europe.

The situation in Haiti continues to be very concerning. Haiti’s gang wars have intensified in recent months, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, of which 80% is in the hands of criminal gangs. They are accused of many abuses involving the civilian population, such as murders, rapes, looting and kidnappings for ransom. In addition, gangs continue to raid police stations, schools and attack the international airport. The latter led to the resignation of Haiti’s Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, in a letter signed in Los Angeles on 24 April because he was unable to return to the country. Henry had earlier announced that he would resign once a transitional presidential council was created.

“We are devastated, we are desperate by what we see. It is a crisis that has not stopped being a crisis for 40 years,” said Marjorie Villefranche, general director of the Maison d’Haïti in Montreal and one of the spokespersons for the Haitian Concertation for Migrants (CHPM). Nearly 100,000 people had fled the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince in a month to protect themselves from escalating gang attacks, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In addition, over 1,500 people have been killed so far this year in the ensuing violence, according to a UN human rights office report describing the “cataclysmic” situation in Haiti. 

A Multinational Security Support Mission (MSSM) led by Kenya and backed by the UN was set up in response to renewed tensions. In addition, about 70 members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) also deployed to Jamaica in late March to teach peacekeeping skills and combat first aid to over 300 troops from Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas, all member countries of the Caribbean economic and political bloc known as CARICOM. These troops were meant to be deployed as part of the MSSM. However, the mission, which was to support the Haitian National Police in their efforts to restore security in Haiti, was subsequently suspended after Henry’s resignation. And while Kenya reiterated its commitment to participate in the MSSM, it requested a new taskforce reassess the conditions on the ground before the deployment of its forces.

Meanwhile, the gangs are more organized and better armed than ever before and any  mission to retake control of the Haitian capital and its metropolitan area of some 3 million people will need a much stronger intervention than that announced, according to experts who speak of a very complex mission. “Anarchy is really far advanced. So, if you want to restore order in Haiti you will probably need outside intervention on a massive scale, like long term occupation, which approaches martial law. But I don’t think any outside actors have the stomach for that,” noted Jack Cunningham recently, an international relations professor at the University of Toronto.

Supporting this view, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türknotes, also said recently that despite an arms embargo on Haiti, “the illicit trafficking of arms and munitions across porous borders has provided a chain of reliable supply to the gangs,” so that “they often have greater firepower than the Haitian national police.” 

What responsibility does Canada have?

Haiti has experienced numerous foreign military interventions over the decades, including six UN operations since the 1990s. One of those lasted 13 years, ending in 2017 with a cholera epidemic brought by UN peacekeepers. The disease has since killed tens of thousands of Haitians and it took a few years before the UN admitted responsibility for the epidemic. Some UN peacekeepers also took advantage of poor Haitian girls. Indeed, the 2017 intervention caused great frustration for many Haitians.

“Canada is perceived as a stakeholder of the problem,” explained Stephen Baranyi, professor at the School of International Development and globalization at the University of Ottawa, specializing in the Haitian question. “From the election of President Préval in 2006 to the years before the devastating earthquake of 2010, there has been a lot of progress in many areas. It was years of hope and it would not have been possible without international intervention. But with the earthquake, a lot of things changed. In the crowd of massive humanitarian aid that arrived in 2010, the international community, notably the UN and US began to intervene inappropriately in Haiti’s internal affairs again, such as intervening in the outcome of the 2011 elections to ensure [Michel] Martelly’s victory.”

Canada did not denounce this election, recalls the professor and since then the dream of social justice and a better society in Haiti gradually disappeared. Justin Trudeau, added Baranyi, has already declared that we must change our approach towards Haiti to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, saying that changes in Haiti “have to come from within the Haitian society and have to be executed by Haitian police and by others.” Canada, he added, placed sanctions on political figures and businessmen from the economic elite in 2022, such as the former Haitian President Michel Martelly, suspected of involvement in the financing of criminal activities in Haiti. 

The United States has also been pushing Canada to lead the international force in Haiti, to no avail. “Canada’s response is very thin, not sufficient. We think that Canada has its responsibility in this story because it was part of the body group which since the earthquake has had to support Haiti for its development and governance, and we see the result. Canada should take the leadership for a solution. Canada has this possibility, but does not use it,” said the CHPM’s Villefranche. According to her, Canadian soldiers should instead be sent directly to Haiti to train the police and above all to equip them well. However, the approximately 200 armed groups believed to be operating in Haiti have become more autonomous and armed and can easily hide among the local population. A single force alone would not resolve the growing security crisis according to experts. It could also lead to a new breakdown in civil order in the event of a withdrawal. 

A new Canadian approach?

Should Canada become more involved in finding a solution to the problems that plague Haiti? “There is always a possible improvement, but we have to recognize in reality what Canada is doing,” Stephen Baranyi further noted. In 2023, Canada provided more than $100 million just for operational support of the Haitian national police and for its recovery. In 2024, the government also put $80 million more on the table to support and finance part of the multinational mission and continue support directly to the national police. And that’s in addition to over $2 billion in economic, social and humanitarian support since 2010. Canada also chairs the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti.

However, the current international context also attracts a lot of attention and energy, whether with the war in Ukraine or the situation in the Middle East. But for Marjorie Villefranche this is not a valid reason not to become more involved in assisting Haiti. “It’s not very explainable. In the past, Canada used to take quite courageous positions (…) The policy it exercises on Haiti is as if it were Kazakhstan. But no, it’s Haiti and there are many Haitians in Canada. Canada must hear us.” 

Indeed, the Haitian community represents nearly 179,000 people in Canada, according to the latest 2021 census. And 87% live in Quebec, mostly in Montreal. Given that Canada has French speakers, some think that this would be all the more reason to help Haiti and do it more easily, versus other countries that do not speak French.

For Stephen Baranyi though, Canada has adopted the right strategy, learned from the past. “We saw a construction of a Canadian policy distancing itself from that of the UN and the US and it is in this context that we saw Canada’s systematic refusal of another military intervention in Haiti (…) Canada must continue like this, not imposing our solutions, but carefully listening to what is emerging consensus and seeing how modestly we can help them.”

Does the solution involve new elections in Haiti? After more than a month since the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the nine members of the Transitional Presidential Council (TPC) have been appointed. They were eagerly awaited, as the best way forward to restoring public order and stability. Reactions to the TPC, however, have been mixed. Some question its legitimacy and others, like some armed gangs, said they will attack anyone who works with the TPC.  Nevertheless, the TPC will exercise the functions of the office of president until a new president is elected and inaugurated.

Haiti has not held a presidential election since 2016. “If it’s as usual, we have elections and we cover everything up, it’s not useful. I think that we must first secure the country, normalize things, and then perhaps imagine elections which would be elections,” said Marjorie Villefranche, who worries about the future. “We must be very careful,” she added, “because it could become a civil war or a genocide” in Haiti if the situation in the country continues to unravel.

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