In Canaan, a pop-up city rises on an empty promise

The US$ 18 million Sport for Hope Centre was built by the International Olympic Committee in Canaan, a city that did not exist five years ago but now has an estimated 300,000 residents. (Flavie Halais)

CANAAN, Haiti — It’s a hot Sunday morning and Michael Jonet and his teenage friends are bracing for yet another day wasted away as the sun quickly moves up the sky. There is no homework to finish, no cash to be made at a weekend job, perhaps not even a meal to look forward to. Such things are rare in Canaan. “This place is like slum, like a jungle,” Jonet says. “But people have no choice but to live here. They have no place to go.”

Five years ago, Canaan didn’t exist. But when the January 12, 2010 earthquake hit, Haiti’s then-president René Préval declared the land, located at the northern end of Port-au-Prince’s metropolitan area, as “public utility.” Soon, thousands of homeless refugees flocked to these arid hills to escape the dreadful living conditions in the capital’s camps, hoping the government would deliver on its promise to turn the area into a permanent settlement. It is now estimated that up to 300,000 Haitians could be living in Canaan, making it one of Haiti’s five largest cities.


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In Canaan, a pop-up city rises on an empty promise

Retrofitting Haiti’s buildings for the next quake

Years later, those who could afford to built houses for themselves. Others live in shacks, some of them still covered with emergency tarps given by foreign donors in the weeks after the disaster. But the government has yet to show up. There is still no running water or electricity, no public schools or health services. “We’re waiting for the government to organize [the area] so we can survive like real human beings,” says resident Céline Michelle Sadia.

The community has taken matters into its own hands to a remarkable extent, organizing into committees to voice demands to the government. They’ve cleared up roads and soccer fields, built shops, churches and a few private schools, always making sure to leave space for future infrastructure. But Sadia says her committee has become all but inactive. As the population keeps on growing, a sense of overwhelm has taken over.

By a strange coincidence, Canaan now offers a stunning view over a state-of-the-art sports training complex. The US$ 18 million Sport for Hope Centre was built at the initiative of the International Olympic Committee on land donated by the government. The facility does offer free programs for some of Canaan’s children, who for the most part are unschooled and often attend classes at the centre under the blaring sun on an empty stomach.

In Canaan, there is still no running water or electricity, no public schools or health services. (Flavie Halais)

Unbeknownst to most residents, big plans are being drafted for Canaan. The U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Haitian government in 2013 to assist with urban planning and housing construction. Since then, USAID has signed further agreements with foreign donors, including a US$ 14 million, two-year project with the American Red Cross to support urban development. Observers say these projects could be the chance to create a model for post-disaster refugee resettlement, but are ultimately contingent upon political will. And with an election coming up in October, the political landscape couldn’t be more uncertain.

Canaan residents, however, have made their own plans for the election. “We’re going to ask for electricity, water, and solar panels,” Sadia says. “If the politicians cannot do that for us, we won’t vote for them.”


Six lessons from rebuilding Port-au-Prince

Retrofitting Haiti’s buildings for the next quake

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Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montréal who covers cities and international social issues. She is currently reporting on the economic impact of refugee crises through her project #RefugeeEconomics. Full bio

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