The traffic is beyond congested, buildings are in various states of disrepair and garbage and rubble piles dot the city. There are people everywhere, gathering in small and large groups, weaving through the traffic and selling everything from food to car parts on the side of the road.
It's more than just the weather: life in Haiti through Canadian eyes is unchartered territory.
Haiti is both chaotic and breathtaking. And for a country that has seen so much hardship, the people are simply getting on with the business of life.
Upon arriving in Port-au-Prince for her first peacekeeping mission in 2008, Cpl. Laurence Trottier thought, "This place has to be seen to be believed."
"It's a five-sensory experience," says Trottier. "A picture doesn't represent Port-au-Prince in any way because there are so many other things that get missed. It's an incredible place."
Trottier is one of about 1,400 Canadian police officers that have been proud to don the iconic blue beret as part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) since the mission began in 2004.
More than 200 years ago, Haiti fought for its independence from French and Spanish colonial rule. Since then, it has been invaded by the United States, suffered under the oppressive rule of dictatorships, developed a democracy, experienced several coups, been devastated by floods, tropical storms, an earthquake, a cholera outbreak and riots.
Every Canadian United Nations police officer (UNPol) has their own personal reasons for going on mission. Having served twice as contingent commander in Haiti, where he was responsible for all Canadian police officers on mission, Supt. Mike McDonald says there's a need for stability and security in Haiti.
"There's no greater place in which you can see the need on people's faces," says McDonald. "There's a need to protect. There's a need to put a smile on people's faces. And that's what we do by bringing security to them."
C/Supt. Serge Therriault, who's currently deployed as Deputy Police Commissioner for the development of the Haitian National Police (HNP) with MINUSTAH, says that Canadian police officers have an excellent reputation in Haiti.
In recognition of their expertise and professionalism, Canadians have served in various senior United Nations (UN) positions, including police commissioner, deputy police commissioner, regional commanders and experts in community policing.
"We're very versatile and we can adapt to many of the police functions that are set to develop," says Therriault. "And because of their language and policing skills, Canadians are in high demand."
But it isn't just those in leadership roles that are representing Canada. McDonald says that regardless of their position or the location they serve in, Canadians deliver consistent results.
"They're not just a police officer building capacity, they're representing Canada every day, every minute, every second," says McDonald. "I tell them, 'Remember that, and make sure you depict those values that are so important to us.' "
In addition to being able to impart knowledge on others and being resourceful, McDonald says the key qualities that UNPols need to have is being open to different cultures and different views, as the UN brings together police officers from 46 different countries.
"We must always be open to other ideas, ways and approaches. Although we're competent police officers, everyone brings something to the table, which ultimately helps us reach our objectives," says McDonald.
Then and now
With a mandate to support the electoral process, improve the rule of law and bring security and stability to the nation, the UN first stepped into Haiti from 1994 to 2000 and again in 2004.
The HNP is still a young force. And when A/Commr. Marc Tardif arrived for his first mission in Haiti in 1995 as a peacekeeper, the police force was in its infancy.
"There were military before then," says Tardif. "When they decided to put the police organization in place, the national police, they used a portion of the military, probably around 4,700 personnel, and transitioned them into a police organization."
In Tardif's first mission, the UNPol were like the police of jurisdiction while they were helping to transition the military to be a professional police organization. He trained HNP cadets that were green, fresh from the police academy.
When MINUSTAH began in 2004, they were there to support the HNP.
"When I went back in 2010, the HNP officers were professional police officers, some with 15 years of experience," says Tardif.
He was happy to see some of the police officers he'd trained. "I didn't have white hair at the time of my first mission, but my French Canadian accent together with the way that I am, they recognized who I was and they remembered my name," says Tardif.
But it wasn't always smooth sailing for MINUSTAH. In 2006, the international community developed the HNP Reform Plan and imposed it on the HNP.
"They didn't really buy into it," says Therriault. It resulted in slow progress in the early years of the mission.
A shattered nation
And then in an instant, everything changed. On January 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated the nation, leaving close to 300,000 dead, more than a million homeless and the country's infrastructure in ruin.
The HNP lost 75 officers, another 253 were injured and 18 UNPols died.
The RCMP members on the ground collectively held their breaths as they accounted for their own, and it was with great sadness that they learned that Supt. Doug Coates and Sgt. Mark Gallagher were killed.
It was the death of Coates that brought Tardif back to Haiti. He hadn't planned on going on another mission at the time, but Coates had been his troopmate.
"To me, Doug was the peacekeeper for the RCMP," says Tardif. "His life was dedicated to peacekeeping. Because of my attachment to Doug, I went to continue what he started in his memory."
He arrived to face the chaos a month after the earthquake and immediately got down to business.
The entire mission had shifted gears from building the HNP to a humanitarian mission.
In the days and months following the earthquake, Canadians helped save many lives: they rescued victims trapped in the rubble, performed first aid on the injured and acted as interpreters for medical staff.
"Our officers were victims too, but they were reporting for duty — on foot or 10 in the same car — but they were reporting to help out," says Tardif.
For his leadership after the earthquake, addressing the rising crime rates and bringing the issue of gender-based violence to the forefront, Tardif was appointed as Police Commissioner in March 2011.
In the top position, Tardif continued strengthening these efforts and responding to new challenges, while balancing the politics of leading police officers from 46 countries.
"Sometimes what needs to be done you do it for the right cause," says Tardif. "It doesn't matter what you're going to face after. My mindset was that whoever was going to challenge me, I was going to stand up for what I was doing because it was the right thing to do."
And the devastation in Haiti ignited the desire for other RCMP members to return to the mission.
Sgt. Denis Chiasson was in Haiti in 2008 training HNP members in forensics. After his first mission, he worked in the International Peace Operations Branch (now International Policing Development), which is the branch that co-ordinates all Canadian police deployments to international peace operations missions.
After the earthquake in 2010, Chiasson wanted to go back. "I had lived the earthquake from abroad because I was taking care of all the people in mission from the logistic side," he says. "I knew that all the Haitians were in trouble after the earthquake and I wanted to do my part for the humanitarian aspect of the mission."
Trottier felt the same way. She couldn't stop thinking about the friends she'd made while she was there in 2008.
"My mind was focused on going back," says Trottier. "When I found out that I was on the list to deploy, I was excited. My heart was still there."
Now, three years later, Trottier is getting ready to deploy for her third mission in Haiti.
The way forward
After the earthquake, it took about a year for the mission to get back on track. Therriault says the HNP's response to the disaster brought it closer to the people.
"It forced them to get engaged in all the activity surrounding the earthquake," says Therriault. "It showed that they were able to respond the very next day and get out and help the population."
And things were looking better than ever. Instead of imposing a new plan on the HNP, the UNPol are now working with them on the HNP Development Plan 2012-2016.
"They were involved in all the stages of the plan," says Tardif, who was serving as police commissioner at the time the plan was first developed. "That was a success story for me because it's not our plan, it's their plan. They're more engaged because they're the ones that created it."
Since 2012, homicide, kidnapping and sexual- and gender-based violence rates have gone down steadily.
"We've achieved almost zero kidnappings month after month for a full year," says Therriault.
And now that there's a foundation for security and the HNP are able to respond operationally, the mission is focused on how they're going to develop the HNP institution.
As part of the development plan, they have a list of 70 activities they'd like to complete by 2016. To date, they've completed five, including the construction of the General Inspectorate — the police of the police — and developing a career plan for HNP officers.
Another 23 projects are in the advanced stage of completion, 41 are underway and one has yet to be started.
Therriault says while it's important to build good memories on mission, he talks to UNPols about building a legacy as well.
"What will our legacy be?" asks Therriault. "For the mission to get to 15,000, to have an incorruptible General Inspection, to build their coast guard, to reduce the hardship in the prisons, to develop good capacity to work with other agencies — that's the legacy. People are getting it and they're making a difference."
In February 2014, Tardif returned to Haiti to attend the Haiti medal ceremony for Canadian UNPols. It's an event that takes place every year, but this year also marked the 25th anniversary of Canadian police involvement in international police operations.
He was pleased with what he saw: the streets were clear of rubble, there was less traffic. Internally displaced persons camps were closing as people were relocated. There were even street lights and traffic lights on major roads. And most importantly, the mission was progressing.
"It takes time," says Tardif. "But it's flowing in the right direction."
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2014).