Group of Haitian born Montreal police officers return to provide aid

Peter Rakobowchuk
January 22, 2010
By Peter Rakobowchuk
MONTREAL - A contingent of Haitian-born Montreal police officers is hitting the streets in quake-ravaged Port-au-Prince armed only with an unshakeable will to do whatever they can to help. The group, which arrived Wednesday, isn't wearing their uniforms or carrying their sidearms because their presence as police officers hasn't been formally requested by the United Nations, which is co-ordinating relief efforts.

MONTREAL - A contingent of Haitian-born Montreal police officers is hitting the streets in quake ravaged Port-au-Prince armed only with an unshakeable will to do whatever they can to help.

The group, which arrived Wednesday, isn't wearing their uniforms or carrying their sidearms because their presence as police officers hasn't been formally requested by the United Nations, which is co-ordinating relief efforts.

The officers, accompanied by Montreal police chief Yvan Delorme, are part of a group of 100 people travelling on a humanitarian mission to the Caribbean country where an estimated 200,000 people were killed by a massive earthquake last week.

Most of the 18 officers are Haitian-born and some haven't yet heard what happened to their own families. But Delorme said the group is well connected in that country and hoping to make an impact in any way possible.

Delorme, who is not Haitian but who has visited the country, is leading the mission code-named Koudmen - Creole for helping hand.

Among the group is Jean-Ernest Celestin, the city's first Haitian-born officer to hold the rank of district commander. He said the officers on the mission are eager to link up with a group of Montreal police officers who lived through the quake.

"We have our colleagues over there who have survived the earthquake and they need this support, they need to see a familiar face," Celestin said.

Celestin, who has previously worked in Haiti as part of a United Nations mission, said it was an opportunity the officers could not pass up.

"We're also thinking of the Haitian population in Montreal who don't have the ability to go to Haiti, but we have this opportunity to help," Celestin said.

"I think we can make a difference . . . and we can also study the environment to see what the needs are in mid- and long-term for Haiti and what we need to do in Montreal."

The officers were part of a group of more than 100 people who were on a fully loaded Air Transat Airbus A330 which left Montreal for Haiti early Wednesday morning.

The huge aircraft's cargo included water, clothing, generators, tents and 10,000 surgical masks.

There are about 200 Haitian-Canadian officers on the Montreal force and Delorme said "a lot of them received bad news about their families."

He said that one objective of the mission is to support 28 fellow officers from Montreal who are currently in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, which was devastated by the quake.

Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay said the mayor of Port-au-Prince, the national police force and UN Habitat, an agency that helps set up housing, have asked for assistance and the city is responding.

"We want to definitely show the whole world that regardless of procedures that are in place, what's important for us is to be on the ground and to help people who need it," he told reporters at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport.

About 100,000 Haitians live in Canada, many of them in the Montreal area.

The Montreal officers are going as civilians because they have not yet been called upon by the UN for their services.

"The UN has identified that immediate priorities for the wider humanitarian response continue to be medical assistance, shelter, water, and food and sanitation," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Cannon noted that the UN Security Council unanimously approved an increase of troops and police to the UN mission in Haiti, mainly to escort humanitarian convoys and secure roads.

"Canada is working closely with the UN on this issue, and stands ready to send more police officers, has communicated that to the UN, and the UN will call on us only when conditions to deploy allow," Cannon said.

A spokeswoman for Cannon added that Ottawa is thankful for all the police assistance that has been offered.

The 18 officers are scheduled to be on the ground for a few weeks. Tremblay said they are being joined by 11 doctors and five nurses who will provide medical assistance.

Tremblay said immigration will become very important in the coming weeks as the federal government considers allowing more Haitians into the country.

"They will come to Montreal so I think there has to be a plan to do that and an evaluation has to be made (in Haiti)," he added.

Ken Dick, the president of Feed the Children Canada, is sending 11 paramedics and three doctors to join his son-in-law at a mission north of Port-au-Prince.

Paramedic Grant Rumford, his wife and four children have been living and working at the Mission of Hope compound, which includes a school for 1,300 children, a clinic and an orphanage.

"He's been sad, he's been stressed," Dick said prior to the departure of the flight.

"But he's excited the paramedic team is coming down."

Also on the flight were aid workers and several members of Cooks Without Borders.

Founder Jean-Louis Themis says he's sending eight chefs to a hospital to help Haitians to cook "in a catastrophic situation."

"We know how to organize a kitchen."

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