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Jean's Haitian homecoming: Canada's GG returns to ancestral home of Jacmel

JACMEL, Haiti - The bustling streets of a colourful Haitian coastal city ground to a standstill Tuesday as native daughter Michaelle Jean returned for a visit to her ancestral hometown.

JACMEL, Haiti - The bustling streets of a colourful Haitian coastal city ground to a standstill Tuesday as native daughter Michaelle Jean returned for a visit to her ancestral hometown.

Jean wound up her emotional two-day trip to Haiti by visiting some of the places she loved as a child - many of them now reduced to rubble by a catastrophic earthquake two months ago estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people.

The Governor General's walk through the crowded streets of Jacmel attracted a crush of onlookers; their jostling led the RCMP to block off intersections while her entourage struggled to squeeze through.

Jean stopped by a late relative's house and said hello to the new residents as they went about their daily chores out front.

Women selling produce walked by with bowls of fruits and vegetables balancing on their heads. Chickens clucked on the street corners.

Every conceivable colour of fabric was on sale at the jam-packed street stands, as was an array of products ranging from sandals to hair products. In the background stood pastel-coloured buildings, some of them cracked beyond repair.

Taking it all in was Jean, back in the place where she spent summers as a child, visiting relatives.

Some relatives joined her entourage during the walk. After exchanging hugs, kisses, and slapping down at least one low-five, they all got together for a family photo.

"I feel like I'm floating," Jean said at the end of her walk. "Like I've got wings."

It marked another jarring transition on what for Jean has been a two-day emotional roller-coaster: within moments of that jubilant scene, she was burying her face in her hands and sobbing as her helicopter lifted out of town.

There had been more tears earlier in the day, when Jean met the daughter of a close friend who died in the Jan. 12 earthquake. But at every available opportunity, she was spreading optimism, insisting that progress remains possible in Haiti.

She delivered that message while standing beside President Rene Preval, while surrounded by dozens of Haitian journalists in an improvised news scrum, and in a meeting with civic leaders. Her "big dream," she said, was to see Jacmel one day reach its true potential.

She shook hands with Canadian soldiers, thanking them for their efforts.

The military is shutting down its field hospital, but will leave behind some of the infrastructure it has built, including a water-purification unit and latrines. Up to 500 troops were in the city after the earthquake, and roughly half have already gone home.

Earlier, Amil Roland Zeny, head of the chamber of commerce, greeted her at a meeting with civic leaders for a blunt exchange about problems facing the region.

They cited the collapsed school system, a dearth of private-sector investment in the agriculture sector and a lack of power production, which has resulted in sky-high rates that Zeny compared to a "sword of Damocles" over the country.

But the most persistent criticism, voiced all around the table, was frustration with Haiti's government, which they say controls development planning and aid funding.

The head of one prominent local non-governmental organization said the Jan. 12 earthquake merely exposed structural problems that already existed within the country.

"We need better governance," said Gerald Mathurin, head of CROS. "The capital, Port-au-Prince, has become the Republic of Haiti ... There is a war between the nation and the state."

Canada has not forgotten Haiti's smaller regions, Jean said. She pointed to Canada's efforts to help thousands of people in Jacmel and Leogane, while much of the international community's immediate reflex was to direct all aid to Port-au-Prince.

"These communities have been left alone for too long," Jean said.

She then launched into a detailed description of her hopes for the region, with a modernized port that could accommodate shipping traffic and tourism.

"There is a refurbished port to get goods in and out," she said. "There are extraordinary beaches. There are kilometres of white sandy beaches ... If we could get ships back in here, to see the port of Jacmel rediscover its pride, to work with all its vigour, it would be extraordinary."

The ideas are there, because numerous development plans have already been made for the country, Jean said - the time to put them into action is now.

 
 
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