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An eye-opening experience

|Written By Glenn Kauth

It’s February 2009, and Cindy Vaillancourt and David-Emmanuel Roberge are landing in Haiti. It’s a far cry from frigid Montreal, where the pair spend much of their days in front of computer screens as environmental lawyers at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. Roberge marked his 31st birthday on the plane. The celebration quickly gave way to shock when one of the reasons for their trip appeared outside the window: swathes of deforestation threatening to devastate the island nation’s ecosystem.

“When you actually land in Port-au-Prince, you can see it,” says Vaillancourt, 28. “It’s visual. You can see mountains with [just] some rare trees remaining there.”

The plane trip began a two-week-long effort to help the country plant new seeds for dealing with its environmental problems. The goal was to teach law students at the State University of Haiti about environmental regulation through a pro bono partnership between McCarthys and Lawyers Without Borders.

“They’re actually facing huge challenges [with the] environment in Haiti,” says Vaillancourt. “It’s starting to be more obvious than anywhere else with the hurricanes, the flooding, the soil erosion, the tropical storms. All of these are major problems that they’re facing.” But, she adds, even the basics are a challenge. “Just the management of waste, which is something we take for granted in Canada, for them it’s a big issue. Access to potable water is a problem in Haiti.”

Roberge faced those issues first-hand when he went to wash up. He was unpleasantly surprised to find the smell of human waste in the water. Outside, meanwhile, the streets were a mess. “Port-au-Prince is more or less an open garbage bin. You would see rubbish everywhere,” he says, noting the discord between Haitians’ stylish dress and the condition of their streets. “You would even see piles of waste on corners. People gather waste on corners and from time to time they burn it.”

But as outsiders staying just a short time in Haiti, expectations for the trip were modest. They didn’t set out to change Haiti’s environmental laws that allowed the degradation to happen nor lecture the students about what their country should do. Instead, they used their expertise to teach them about international conventions on the environment as well as introduce them to what places like Quebec do to protect it. Eventually, the university hopes to set up a specialty in environmental law. “Nobody was expecting us to go there and find solutions,” says Vaillancourt. “But you need people to get interested in that issue, read about it, get the appropriate expertise, and then get involved as part of the ministry of the environment, for instance, to develop regulations.”

The problem, however, isn’t about a lack of good intentions. In 2005, the government passed the Haitian Decree for Environmental Management, a document Vaillancourt says contains solid principles about protecting the land, water, and air. “What’s missing right now is the regulations. They have provisions saying you should protect the environment [and] you should protect the water. They have what we have here; now, they need the details.”

The training of 150 prospective lawyers included a moot session. Vaillancourt and Roberge played the judges, a novel role for the two young associates who say the diversion from daily life in Montreal was a welcome one.

But while the setting was a change, working in a Haitian classroom wasn’t that different, she adds. “In some ways, we were using the same kinds of skills. [At work], you need to make sure that people understand you and people follow you. That’s the kind of thing I do on a day-to-day basis to make sure that I understand my clients’ problems and I respond to it with legal solutions. That’s what we tried to do with the students there.”

Both Vaillancourt and Roberge work mostly with businesses and both say the chance to do pro bono work in Canada and abroad is important. Vaillancourt’s initiation into the world of international developmen began at 17, when she went to Nicaragua to stay with a family and learn about conditions there.

Later, when choosing what to study, she debated between law and teaching. So, getting the chance to combine the two in Haiti was a big opportunity. “Every pro bono experience that can allow me to teach and do one of the two passions I have is welcome,” she says.

For his part, Roberge says his other career choice was journalism, and while he ended up choosing law, he always had a keen interest in international human rights. Since becoming a lawyer six years ago, he has stayed connected to that field through pro bono work with a few HIV and AIDS organizations in Montreal. “I feel we’re really privileged living in North America but also in Montreal doing the job we do and meeting the great people we do,” he says. “I think I’ve always been sensitive [about] giving back to the community.”

But in Haiti, Vaillancourt and Roberge say they got back more than just the students’ gratitude, something the Haitians expressed through a poem on Valentine’s Day, lots of presents, and requests that the two Canadians sign their textbooks before leaving. As the course ended, they ran out of textbooks for the students, so they offered to e-mail a copy. But the responses back that some students didn’t have e-mail or Internet access shocked Vaillancourt — in a good way.

“I think doing those kinds of experiences is a good way to keep my balance and to realize the things that we take for granted here,” she says, noting that with sporadic electricity in Haiti, some people find themselves forced to work during the night while the lights are on. “[W]hen you come back it gives you another perspective — maybe another perspective on all the stress we impose on ourselves and the way we treat our files [when we] feel like it’s the end of the world if we make a mistake. You come back and you realize there are big challenges faced by people on the other side of the planet.”