Remembering Haiti's earthquake through art and conversation

On the morning of Jan. 12, 2010, Frantz Voltaire met up with his cousin, George Anglade, for a coffee in his birth city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Just a few hours later, Voltaire hopped on an airplane and headed back to Montreal. It was while he was airborne that he first heard the news. 

"We met in the morning not knowing that it was the last time," said Voltaire. 

Anglade and his wife were among the more than 230,000 people killed by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti that day. Voltaire himself had escaped the earthquake by mere hours. 

Voltaire was one of many who exchanged stories of the earthquake through workshops, artwork, and panel discussions at the TOHU circus in Montreal Saturday. The event, called "Ayiti La," was organized in collaboration with the Maison d'Haïti.

People from all walks of life told tales of heartbreak, hope and frustration, describing the ways in which the earthquake still has an impact on the country — and themselves — a decade later. 

'It was a shock' 

CBC

It took Voltaire years before he finally convinced himself to visit Port-au-Prince again. When he did, he could hardly recognize it. Even now, 10 years later, Voltaire fears it will never recover from the devastation. 

"When I finally decided to go to Haiti, it was a shock," said Voltaire. 

"When you live in a city, you have some references, you have some landmarks. And you see more of the landmarks have disappeared." 

The cathedral he lived near, the national palace, and the school he attended as a child were all gone. 

Haiti-Montreal connection 

Jean Bonald Golinksy Fatal, head of a Haitian workers association, also spoke at the event Saturday. He was in Porte-au-Prince at the time of the earthquake.

"I was on my way to my home, when I saw a woman on her knees in the streets, raising her hands and screaming," said Fatal. 

"It was at that moment that someone told me, 'It's an earthquake.'"

Franca Mignacca/CBC

The damage was limited in Fatal's neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, so it wasn't until the next morning that he fully realized what had gone on. 

"It was extremely serious, shocking, with bodies and people in the streets," he said. 

Though Fatal still lives in Port-au-Prince, he visits Montreal frequently, feeling a strong connection to the Haitian community in the city. At the event Saturday, he said he wanted to make sure that Montrealers never forget that Haiti still exists and is still important. 

"There's an extremely important link between Montreal and Haiti," said Fatal. "After the earthquake, I believe that connection only grew stronger." 

"The people who died or disappeared in the earthquakes deserve that we honour their memories." 

Coping through art

Edzer Prophete had moved to Montreal a year before the earthquake hit, but several of his friends and relatives were still in Port-au-Prince. 

Prophete lost his father's cousin that day and the death had a major impact on his tight-knit family. 

"We all lost someone," he said. "In Haiti, we live in families, so cousins are close." 

Franca Mignacca/CBC

Now, he hopes his artwork will remind Montrealers of the tragedy. 

"It had an international impact because it caused a forced migration, at all levels, of all kinds of people who were traumatized by this situation.," he said. "It has to stay part of history."

He stood by a display of his own paintings Saturday, describing how each one has a piece of Haiti in it. He uses high contrast paints and shattered lines to depict the dramatic loss the country went through.  

Prophete still feels frustrated whenever he thinks about the day of the earthquake. 

"When I see things are going badly and there's nothing I can do about it, it tears me up inside," said Prophete. 

Ayiti La will resume at 10 a.m. Sunday morning at Tohu Circus, 2345 Jarry Street East, and will close with a musical performance at 6 p.m.