Feb 9th, 2010 9:57 AM UTC
By Brie O'Keefe
On Saturday February 6, 2010, Michèle Bertol, a Haitian Canadian led ONE’s delegation to hand over our petition for Haiti debt forgiveness to the G7 Finance Minister’s meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada.
A town of only 7,000 people near the Arctic Circle, it was harder to think of a more remote location to hold an international summit. When ONE feared we’d be unable to send the message of our 200,000 signature-strong petition to the G7, we found Michèle.
I had the opportunity to chat to Michèle about why Haiti is so important to her, and how on earth she ended up living next to the North Pole.
ONE: So, in your opinion, how did the handover of the petition go?
Michèle Bertol: Really well, it was well organised. [Canadian Finance Minister] Jim Flaherty wasn’t able to attend, but Derek Vanstone, Minister Flaherty’s Chief of Staff accepted the petition in his place, and he knew we were waiting for him. In fact, just an hour before Minister Flaherty had had a press conference and made a statement saying the G7 supported Haiti debt cancellation, so we were feeling really positive ahead of the handover.
We really wanted the photo to show the Northern setting, so even though we were indoors and we had a G7 sign, we decided to leave our parkas on while we handed over the petition and use our ONE t-shirts as arm-bands so that the picture would really feel like it was taken in the North.
ONE: Can you tell us a bit more about how you ended up in the Canadian Arctic after being born in Haiti?
MB: I was born in Haiti, but when I was 8 years old, my parents decided we needed to leave the country – there was a terrible dictatorship, and like most middle class Haitians, they feared for the future.
In those days you could apply for a green card for the United States from within the country, so my mother and I boarded a plane for New York on a 2 week holiday visa, with small suitcases as if we were just going for vacation.
A year later my father and my little sister came, and together we move to Montreal, where I spent most of my adolescence. I became a planner, and I got married and then my ex-husband was offered an amazing opportunity to work in Northern Canada, so he came up first. A few months later a planning position opened up, and I got it – and now I’ve been here for more than 20 years!
I have the unique experience of being genetically built for hot weather. Generations of my ancestors were all built to deal with heat – and so moving up North has been an intense physical challenge. I’ve been nicknamed ‘The Bundled One’ in the local language over the years because in situations where everyone was wearing 4 layers, I’d be wearing 12 – but I needed it just to survive!
However, although it’s physically uncomfortable dealing with -40◦ weather, I wouldn’t trade any of it for the life I’ve been able to live here in the North.
ONE: Why was delivering this petition so important to you?
MB: Although I’ve lived most of my life in Canada, I am Haitian born, and I still have family there. When I saw what happened, my heart wept. First it wept for my family but they are alright, but I also felt a great sadness for what had happened in the country of my birth.
I feel a great connection to Haiti, and in all the photos on TV and in magazines, I saw myself in all of those people. I felt very intimately the impact of that disaster and so I did everything I could on a personal level to help. So obviously I was so happy to be able to participate in any way I could in ONE’s initiative to have Haiti’s debt cancelled.
ONE: So why do you think the work of ONE is important for countries like Haiti?
MB: I feel that with ONE, every member looks beyond themselves for something bigger. The 2 million people who form ONE and the 200,000 ONE members who signed the petition have one thing in common: they look beyond their own life and their own conditions; beyond colour of skin or location; they look beyond tradition or age. They look beyond all that and only focus on the fact that we are all brothers and sisters. And with a heart that has such an outlook on the world, you can accomplish anything. And this is an example of how when people with such a compassionate vision get together, they can move mountains.
ONE: Is there anything you’d like to say to the ONE members all over the world who signed this petition?
MB: On behalf of our small group in the North, I offer to you and to all the members of ONE my deepest thanks for your heartfelt response to the plight of the people of Haiti. Your work embodies the essence of human compassion. ONE achieved its objective it seems now the cancellation of the debt is now just a formality. As a Haitian, and on behalf of all Haitians, I offer my deepest thanks for helping give Haiti a chance.
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