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Canada to hold Haiti summit amid historic relief effort

Canada will host an emergency meeting in Montreal next Monday of countries that are leading the rescue effort in Haiti, as world leaders struggle to craft a longer-term plan for rebuilding the stricken nation.

Lawrence Cannon, Canada's Foreign Minister, hosted a teleconference yesterday afternoon that included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and their counterparts from several Latin American countries, along with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

As a key player in Friends of Haiti, an informal group of governments and organizations that has been working to improve the situation in Haiti since the early 1990s, Canada is playing a major role in co-ordinating the global response.

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"Our neighbour is in difficult circumstances and it's like helping the next-door neighbour," Mr. Cannon told reporters yesterday. "It's all about solidarity."

But that solidarity is already in jeopardy. Even as Canada and Canadians rush forward with the most ambitious response to a humanitarian crisis in this country's history, it is becoming clear that the United States is taking charge of the relief effort, despite international protests over American high-handedness.

French and Brazilian officials complained over the weekend that the United States is favouring its own airplanes at the Port-au-Prince airport.

Co-operation and criticism will compete for dominance as the international community struggles to reconstruct a country that has defied the best and worst efforts of other nations to change its course.

The Canadian government has proposed a donors' conference on Haiti to be held later in the spring. Date and venue have not yet been established.

Canada is working closely with MINUSTAH, the United Nations operation in Haiti, and with the Haitian government in responding to a disaster that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday was "one of the most serious humanitarian crises in decades."

Mr. Ban was in Haiti, where he was shown the devastated MINUSTAH headquarters. The UN flag flying over mission headquarters was brought down and was given to him for return to UN headquarters.

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Unlike the Asian tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan, the cyclone that hit Myanmar or other recent catastrophes, last week's earthquake ravaged the capital city of a country whose government was already barely functional, making it especially difficult to deliver relief.

Canada continues to ramp up its contribution to that relief, in what Mr. Cannon told The Globe and Mail was "unquestionably ... the most ambitious and comprehensive response to a humanitarian disaster in this nation's history."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay yesterday ordered the deployment to Haiti of 1,000 soldiers who were on standby at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec.

"The government of Canada feels it has a moral imperative to do everything in its power to help with the international relief and stabilization efforts" in Haiti, Mr. MacKay said at a news conference, "and to do so as quickly as humanly possible."

The Quebec-based troops will complement 500 soldiers aboard two Canadian Navy vessels expected to reach Haiti's shores early this week, as well as the 200-plus members of Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team, who are also in the process of deploying.

In all, about 2,000 Canadian troops will soon be in the country, along with hundreds of vehicles and seven helicopters.

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While Mr. Cannon insisted yesterday that Canada co-ordinated its actions with the UN and scrupulously respected Haitian sovereignty, the Americans are providing most of what relief is getting to Haiti's stricken citizens, and may be less scrupulous.

French Foreign Minister Kouchner claimed that the airport had become "an annex of Washington," according to France's ambassador to Haiti, Didier Le Bret, after the Americans diverted a French relief flight to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

This account, however, is strongly contradicted by Duncan Dee, the chief operating officer of Air Canada. He was in the cockpit of a Boeing 767 as it delivered 22,000 kilograms of supplies for emergency relief Saturday to Port-au-Prince that had been donated by the airline.

"What I saw was extremely well-organized under very challenging circumstances," said Mr. Dee, who also listened in on all communications between ground control and aircraft. "The U.S. is not favouring its own flights.

"The big problem they are facing is space at the airport," he explained. "The second big problem is planes arriving totally unannounced seeking entry to the airport. All probably well-meaning but not anticipated or planned."

It was the Americans who got to the airport first, and who got it back up and running, even though its control tower had been badly damaged.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is close by, serving as a second airport.

As many as 13,000 American troops have arrived in, or are on their way to the region to provide security and deliver aid to Haiti's stricken population.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order mobilizing reserve units, mostly to increase medical support and improve port security.

The key problem may be that there is America's history with Haiti, and then there is everyone else's.

The Americans have a checkered record with that benighted land, deposing governments and sending in troops at will. But it has also led efforts to improve living conditions.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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