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Trudeau arrives in Bahamas to meet Caribbean leaders as Haiti crisis deepens

NASSAU, Bahamas — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in the Bahamas on Wednesday afternoon, where members of the Caribbean Community are gathering to discuss regional issues, including the deepening crisis in Haiti.

NASSAU, Bahamas — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in the Bahamas on Wednesday afternoon, where members of the Caribbean Community are gathering to discuss regional issues, including the deepening crisis in Haiti. 

Trudeau is participating as a special guest at the summit of 20 Caribbean leaders in Nassau as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary. He was welcomed at the airport by the Bahamian foreign minister, Canadian foreign officials and an honour guard, which he inspected in an arrival ceremony. 

Ahead of his arrival on the island, his office said the trip will allow leaders to consider political, security and humanitarian assistance to Haitian people and "Haitian-led solutions to the ongoing situation." 

The country has been embroiled in crisis since the July 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse, with violent gangs jockeying for territory in the capital Port-au-Prince and international watchdogs reporting rampant sexual assault, kidnappings and a worsening health emergency.

Haiti's de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was not elected to the role but will nonetheless participate in the Nassau meetings, has asked for foreign military intervention — and the United States has previously suggested that Canada could lead one. The United Nations supports such an intervention, but the idea remains unpopular in Haiti.

So far, the Canadian government has kept its powder dry, instead searching for a "consensus" on the ground and levying economic sanctions against elites accused of supporting gang activity. 

Still, Trudeau, speaking in French, telegraphed before the trip that Caribbean nations have a role to play in “legitimizing” international help for Haitian people after decades of failed “colonialist” interventions.

He said in English that he looked forward to discussing “regional support” and “regional participation” in Haiti with Caribbean leaders, adding that they would also talk about infrastructure, climate change and other issues.

Trudeau is scheduled to give an address at the summit's plenary on Thursday and will meet with the leaders of the Bahamas, Barbados and Jamaica, as well as Henry.

Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, is also attending the meetings in Nassau. Trudeau sent Rae to Haiti in December to assess the situation and work with political actors there to identify paths forward. 

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis told a news conference on Tuesday that discussing Haiti will be a "prominent" priority during the summit, and he urged countries such as Canada and the United States to step up to help. 

"We do not have the resources to be able to deal with the Haiti problem ourselves and we do need outside help," he said. 

"What we seek to have done is to stabilize the country sufficiently enough to allow for a free and fair election, and the path and journey to that is where the challenge falls."

Davis signalled that the Bahamas would be willing to contribute personnel to a security mission if one is needed after Jamaica said earlier this month that it was prepared to join an eventual multilateral force.

Stephen Baranyi, an international development professor at the University of Ottawa, said that Canada sees a full-fledged military mission as a "last resort."

The best-case scenario, he said, would be for Haitians to come together in a political dialogue that leads to free and fair elections later this year. 

But the notion of sending a specialized, time-limited force to assist Haitian police, or sending a larger military force, is being increasingly discussed. And Canada could play a leading role in such an effort if it finds partners, Baranyi said. 

"It can't be seen as just going in there alone. It needs backing and participation by Caribbean countries, by African francophone countries," he said. 

Emmanuel Dubourg, Canada's only Haitian-born member of Parliament, said in an interview that the Canadian government is "discussing all options" as it considers how to assist the beleaguered country.

"We are trying our best to have that consensus to have a diplomatic solution," the Liberal MP said. 

"But we also heard that the national police is under-armed, and the situation (is) really difficult there."

Earlier this month, Trudeau sent a Canadian Armed Forces surveillance plane to conduct two intelligence-gathering flights over Haiti, which the government said were intended to collect information about gang activity in the country. 

Canada has also airlifted armoured vehicles to Haiti to support police efforts, most recently in January. 

Dubourg added that a discussion about Haiti is likely to play into Trudeau's conversations with U.S. President Joe Biden in March when he is expected to visit north of the border. 

An American delegation is also attending the Caribbean Community summit, led by the U.S. assistant secretary of state. 

Trudeau was last expected to join the Caribbean leaders at a meeting in February 2020, but cancelled the trip amid criticism of his government's handling of anti-pipeline blockades in Western Canada at the time. 

More than two million Canadians travel to the countries represented in the group every year, and Canada's two-way trade with them totalled nearly $6 billion in 2021.

Climate change is expected to be another major topic at the summit. Most members of the Caribbean Community are island nations that are expected to suffer disproportionately from the negative effects of global warming and rising sea levels. 

Some tiny islands in Caribbean chains have literally disappeared in the past decade, said Baranyi. It's a "wake-up call" for the international community, he said, and for developed countries such as Canada that have contributed significantly more to the problem. 

"We have a special responsibility to pay some of the bill," he said, adding that a discussion of how countries plan to meet UN climate goals is likely to be on the agenda. 

The prime minister is expected to return to Ottawa late Thursday evening. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2023.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press