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Montreal Haitian group urges Ottawa to speed up immigration files for quake victims

Montreal's Haitian community urged Ottawa on Monday to process immigration files more quickly for Haitians waiting to come to Canada, as its members tried to help their homeland following a deadly earthquake over the weekend.

Montreal's Haitian community urged Ottawa on Monday to process immigration files more quickly for Haitians waiting to come to Canada, as its members tried to help their homeland following a deadly earthquake over the weekend.

The head of the Montreal-based community organization Maison d'Haïti says Ottawa should quickly approve the applications from people who had already started the immigration process. Marjorie Villefranche says that in many cases, people have already met the criteria to come to Canada but their files have been stalled because of bureaucratic delays that can sometimes take years.

"People are saying, 'I'm waiting for my wife, I'm waiting for my husband, I'm waiting for my children, I'm waiting for my mother,'" she said Monday in an interview. "So all these people who should be entering the country, can we accelerate the process, let them come more quickly?"

Villefranche said leaders of a Montreal-based crisis group formed in response to the quake have already approached the Quebec and Canadian governments on the issue but will formalize the request in letters.

In addition to speeding up existing files, Villefranche said the group is also asking the federal government to allow more family reunification in the coming months and to grant permanent residency to Haitians who are undocumented or whose immigration status is precarious. There is "no question" of sending them back to their home country, she said.

The 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck southwestern Haiti on Saturday has claimed at least 1,297 lives and left at least 5,700 people injured. Global Affairs Canada said that as of Monday afternoon, there had been no reports of Canadians being affected.

Montreal has a large Haitian community, and community groups have banded together to support each other and figure out how best to help the struggling Caribbean nation.

Villefranche said calls are pouring in from people who want to know how they can help the villages that have been razed and the people who are homeless.

"It's unbearable, the distress, because we're totally helpless," she said.

Frantz Benjamin, a Quebec legislature member who is also part of the crisis group, said a phone line is being put in place to offer support to Haitian Quebecers, many of whom are still struggling to process the trauma surrounding the devastating earthquake that hit the country in 2010.

"They're reliving scenes of horror and several of them have contacted us to talk about that horror," he said in a phone interview Monday. "Others are waiting for news of their family and they're very stressed. It's a very difficult situation."

Benjamin said the situation on the ground in Haiti is "extremely difficult," with many roads impassable and hospitals overwhelmed, and he said it could worsen with the arrival of tropical depression Grace, which could land Monday night.

Given the difficulties of sending material support, he said that for now, the best way for people to help is to donate to humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross.

Carole Du Sault, a spokesperson for the Red Cross in Quebec, said the organization is working with its counterpart in Haiti to determine how best to support earthquake victims. Du Sault said the group is raising funds for Haiti and is open to sending personnel or materials, including mobile medical clinics, if Haitian authorities indicate they're needed.

Global Affairs Canada said in an email it was working with the Haitian government and international partners to "assess needs" following the earthquake and would "provide assistance based on those needs."

It added that Canada has provided $1.5 billion in assistance to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, including some $240 million in humanitarian aid.

Benjamin and Villefranche say that while the current priority is to support emergency aid efforts, the group is also working with local Haitian associations to come up with a longer-term plan to rebuild the homes, schools and infrastructure that were destroyed in Saturday's earthquake.

Villefranche said the world has learned from the response to the 2010 earthquake, when billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction were given to large organizations and NGOs that didn't do enough consultation with the local people, with disappointing results.

This time, she said, her organization and others were working directly with regional associations and the Haitian people.

"I think that what we learned from the last earthquake is that we can't rely only on large organizations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press