Monday, January 25, 2010

Return of Haitians to Montreal Controversial

Last week fate would conspire to find me crossing paths with many returning Canadian Haitian refugees.
Our company was holding a regularly scheduled, semi-annual meeting in the Wyndam Hotel (formerly the Dorval Hilton), out by Montreal's Trudeau airport, which was set up as the primary processing centre for those airlifted out of the stricken island.

On the Friday before our convention, we received a call from the hotel asking us to move around some rooms and halls that we had booked, to accommodate the Red Cross, which would be setting up operations on the same floor we had booked.

On Monday morning, I walked by an impressive array of official vehicles strewn around the parking lot and entered the hotel lobby, past Montreal police and private security officers who were manning the entrance, enforcing the policy that reporters not be allowed inside.

A temporary desk had been set up immediately inside and it was the first time in my life that I came face to face with those wearing the distinctive Red Cross vest that we are accustomed to seeing on television at various disaster scenes.

The  situation in the lobby can only be described only as surreal, as hotel guests, convention goers and airline personnel rubbed shoulders with returning Haitians, bedecked in Red Cross blankets that they clutched around their shoulders over the summer clothing that they arrived in.

While the Red Cross and civil defence personnel attended to the bewildered Haitians who were waiting to be processed, people checked in and out of the hotel as if nothing was unusual.

Most of the people who returned from Haiti had family in Montreal and somewhere to go (Montreal is home to a vast majority of Haitian Canadians.) As soon as a bus would disembark the refugees, most would be picked up and be whisked away by family or friends. From what I could judge, it was an extremely well organized affair.

Some of the returnees stayed overnight, awaiting connections to other parts of the country and I chatted with many in the lunchtime buffet line, the lobby or the halls as they and their children whiled away the hours on couches, waiting for final travel arrangements to come through.

Most of the adults were quiet and subdued and spoke in muted voices, their painful ordeal over, but tinged with sadness and survivor's guilt. This contrasted sadly from what I know of Montreal Haitians, who are usually garrulous, smiling, boisterous and of extremely good cheer.

As we attended to our business and moved from room to convention room, we mixed with the little children who were colouring in books or completing jig saw puzzles provided by the Red Cross, oblivious to the life changing event they had overcome.

I was loathe to take photos of individuals, as it seemed somewhat infringing.

Our company meetings are usually upbeat, motivational and somewhat fun. As you can imagine, the situation put quite a damper on things. That being said, those who were returning to Canada were the lucky ones. For one woman who had lost most of her family and with whom I rode up the elevator (and heard her story in less than thirty seconds,) it was the only saving grace.

After two days we became used to (or blasé) seeing the Haitins arrive. It was no longer strange that people were going on with their own lives, oblivious to their plight. The lobby bar was full and conducting normal operation with well-heeled men and women joking and laughing over white wine and scotch while watching the unfolding events before them in the lobby. Ironically the barman was Haitain.

Some of my colleagues were from the outer reaches of the province and many had never seen so many black people in one place at one time. At first they were distant, but soon warmed up to the refugees, Haitians are an endearing people.

It is hard to resist the children, especially the little girls in their dreadlocked hair. By the end of our convention, many of our people were inquiring about adoption!

Everybody fell into a routine, the aid workers, the hotel staff and guests. Food was plentiful as hotel staff delivered tray after tray of delicious looking salads and sandwiches to the refugees and their aid workers. I shudder to think what the cost is, of the operation which includes dozens of agencies, all vying to put on their best performance.

News trucks and reporters dutifully showed up at the arrival of each new planeful of refugees and conducted interviews outside the front door with willing participants before closing up shop, only to repeat the same scene the next day.

The Haiti issue has Quebec buzzing. Everyone is sympathetic and wishes to offer aid. The Francophone telethon, held on the same day both Canada and the USA held their own,  raised almost seven million dollars which compares favourably with the take of sixteen million dollars raised in the the English Canada telethon.

But all is not rosy. The issue of taking in refugees who are not Canadian citizens is contentious. There are all sorts of points of view, many contradictory.

Tomorrow, I'll review the various positions being debated. It isn't pretty at all.

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