Our Stories | St. Michael’s Magazine: Telling Haiti’s Story

Featured in St. Michael’s Magazine, Spring 2011 

By Claire-Helene Heese-Boutin

On January 12, 2010, more than 250,000 people died when a massive earthquake hit Haiti. A year later, thousands more continue to suffer from the delayed delivery of aid and die from the spread of cholera. In March 2010, two of my peers who knew of my passion for Haiti told me about a job listing on the UofT careers website. PTV Productions, a Toronto-based TV and digital media house specializing in storytelling and documentaries, was hiring a researcher/writer for their insidedisaster.com website. As a complement to their documentary Inside Disaster Haiti on the Red Cross response to the earthquake, the site offers an in-depth look at Haiti and humanitarianism.

My job was to bring context to the formation of Haiti’s disastrous situation by adding a historic timeline and a list of current aid resources. So I told Haiti’s story as I know it, as it was told to me by my mother, my community, my professors, books, articles, conferences, videos and online resources. I sought to reveal the chronic injustices and resulting vulnerability of the Americas’ second republic, for my studies have taught me that we cannot begin to understand the reasons for that vulnerability without knowing about the genocide of the indigenous Taino Native Americans, the enslavement of thousands of Africans and their successful struggle for freedom in the Haitian Revolution.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus established the first small European settlement on this island in the Caribbean Sea. With the abolition of slavery through the Haitian Revolution, which started in 1791 with a revolt by the slaves and ended with the 1804 declaration of independence, Haiti became the second country after the U.S. to decolonize from Europe and the first non-European republic. Due to the vehement racism of the period, this new black republic was seen as a threat to the colonial systems, which depended upon slave labour and massive environmental exploitation. The great powers of the 19th century did everything they could to erode the foundations of this fledgling nation. Arbitrarily declared debts, usurious interest rates and a constant threat of re-colonization and re-enslavement crippled Haiti before it ever got on its feet.

But Haitians have resisted through arms and thought. Despite their poverty and lack of technology, they are a nation of prolific artists, writers, artisans, entrepreneurs and farmers, and also a deeply spiritual people. That is the story I know, that behind what we only see as the western hemisphere’s poorest country hides a brave nation that persists in its ongoing struggle for freedom.

At the time I took the job, the task ahead of me seemed daunting: how to express an epic tragedy in digestible web ‘bite’ prose that would work as a resource; also, how to deal with the fact that my job existed due to human tragedy. A mentor helped me with the latter by telling me that the very act of questioning my motives was what made it okay to be a paid humanitarian, that it is through reflection and doubt that we continually assess and ensure the altruism of our motives in service to humanitarian causes.

The answer to my other problem came from the excellent team with which I worked. Led by an amazing, interactive director, UofT alumna Katie McKenna, our team of a copy editor, researchers and new media developers helped turn my own research and writing into an engaging website timeline. It was even more exciting to be part of a project that resulted in an award-winning multi-platform educational resource.

Today, I am working with UofT’s “Hart House and Students in Solidarity with Haiti.” With a screening of Inside Disaster Haiti, an exhibition on Haiti’s story and a panel discussion on account- ability in reconstruction efforts, we want to expand the work of insidedisaster.com even further and bring Haiti’s story to the UofT community.