Pushing for social change

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haitian and Canadian religious men and women in Port-au-Prince have resolved to work together to transform the “unjust structures” in Haiti — a bold endeavour in a country where the Church remains privileged and is on good terms with the state.

The religious made this commitment during a four-day meeting of Haitian and Canadian congregations. They gathered last spring to discuss ways to strengthen their solidarity and improve their collaboration in rebuilding the Caribbean country after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The final report of the meeting was issued at the end of the summer.

Although the task of "rebuilding" Haiti is monumental, religious congregations appear to have some leverage. They have a strong presence in basic services, where they occupy the place left vacant by the state. In some way, the Church in Haiti enjoys a prestige reminiscent of the Church in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution.

But the challenges of structural change that they face are considerable. Aside from organizational issues, the Catholic Church in Haiti still has scars from the past. 

Jean-Bertrand Aristide's courageous denunciation of the Duvalier dictatorship is hailed today as having contributed in large part to the fall of the regime. As a result, the communities’ support for Aristide and liberation theology has caused tensions with the Catholic hierarchy. 

“Aristide's undoing was a terrible blow to the communities,” said diocesan priest Fr. William Smarth, a leader in the local Church. In his opinion, congregations have since been striving to limit themselves to isolated good works.

However, Fr. Jean Hanssens said he believes they can no longer avoid the country's serious problems. Fr. Hanssens is director of the Haitian office of Justice and Peace, which is the Catholic Commission devoted to defending human rights.

“The Church must not get involved in politics, but rather accompany the political process,” he said. “We can buy someone a house, but to not have housing and resettlement policies after the earthquake is unacceptable. All of the country's moral authorities must speak up (about this injustice).”

Often throughout the four-day session, religious men and women urged their congeners to be prepared to give up their privileges and denounce unacceptable situations. In a country where the swearing-in of a new president is followed by a mass with all bishops in tow, the Church has much to lose by challenging government.

“Here, it is very difficult to get what you need if you don't have the right contacts, friends in the government,” said Sr. Lorraine Desjardins, superior general of the Sisters of Charity in Ottawa. Her four sisters in Haiti run two schools and two medical clinics and are assisted by employees.

The religious articulated their new plan of action in a statement: “We are committed to living in solidarity with those who fight for the transformation of unjust structures and to letting our compassion flow.”


Sophie Brouillet