Canada’s first Black Governor General Michaëlle Jean had more than one reason to rush back to Toronto from a one-week Scandinavian business trip as the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) special envoy for Haiti to attend the University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto fundraising gala last month.
She was proud to be the recipient of a Luminary award. But more than that, she wanted to personally extend her gratitude to chancellor Sir George Alleyne, vice-chancellor Dr. Nigel Harris and chancellor emeritus Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal for the university’s decisive leadership in reaching out to Haiti in the aftermath of the January 12, 2010 devastating earthquake.
UWI staff participated in food, clothing and personal hygiene collection drives, bank accounts were opened on all the campuses and funds deposited were used to assist students in need.
The university also dispatched two of its engineers to Haiti, trained a National Library of Haiti librarian at the Mona campus in Jamaica and offered 200 places at its Mona, St. Augustine and Cave Hill campuses to displaced final-year students who attended the University of Haiti and the University of Port-au-Prince that were completely destroyed.
“I draw great inspiration from the beautiful collaboration that has seen UWI assist the University of Haiti and other Haitian institutions following the earthquake in reconstructing tertiary education, in fundraising, in sending engineers, in raising international awareness and in facilitating the transfer of Haitian students to your campuses so they can return to Haiti fully equipped to contribute to reconstruction efforts,” said Jean.
“Your commitment not only to Haiti’s education system but also to supporting a long-term sustainable strategy for recovery is a wonderful illustration of the ways in which we can all help Haiti emerge stronger than ever before. With your help, a country can be reborn. With your contribution, an ethic of sharing can overcome destruction, calamity and the feeling of powerlessness. With your commitment, humanity can achieve this wonderful dream of a rebuilt Haiti.”
Since becoming UNESCO’s special envoy last November, Jean has travelled the world promoting Haiti’s long-term comprehensive plan for access to education for all. Supported by UNESCO, the national plan draws on strong networks of local, regional and international partners.
“If I agreed to campaign tirelessly everywhere in support of Haiti, it is because I am deeply troubled by the incessant, almost cacophonous odes, to the resilience of the Haitian people,” said Jean who, with her family, escaped the Duvalier regime and settled in Quebec after her father was arrested and tortured in 1965. “They make it seem as if the Haitian people were put forth on this earth only to recover from one crisis, one tragedy, one ordeal to the other. As I have said many times before, resilience is but the last resort before dying.
“It is therefore my conviction that more recognition must be given to the Haitian people and more broadly to the people of the Caribbean for their capacity to create, to think, to invent, to imagine, to do, to produce and to reach beyond themselves. It is only when we invest fully in Haitians’ capacity, their spirit of innovation and their creativity, that we will see Haiti emerge strong from the embers of decades of badly planned and badly coordinated international aid.”
Jean said the time has come for a paradigm shift in Haiti that will allow the country and the international community to move from the logic of aid and handouts to investment that generates partnerships, good governance and prosperity for all.
“Haiti can no longer suffer to be the laboratory of all experiments, of trial and error, of deficient strategies that have never produced anything viable, or given results of any durability,” she added. “The future of Haiti can only come from sustained investments in the strengthening of human resources. Therefore, education is key to Haiti’s recovery and rebuilding process and Haitians continue to find unity in their thirst for knowledge and training.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority remains afflicted by cruelly ineffective schools and by the sad reality that most of the country’s communes lack institutions of learning and that hundreds of thousands of children lack schooling…The task of rebuilding the country’s education system is enormous.”
In addition to the two universities, 5,000 schools were destroyed by the earthquake.
Last February, Jean appeared before the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti (ICRH) to present UNESCO’s strategy that is focused on education.