After the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, Insp. Jean-Ernest Célestin felt a strong pull to return to the country he was born in.
"I wanted to come back so bad. You get something inside and you feel like you have to give back. This is a way of giving back to the country," says Célestin. "With the skill that I got in Montreal, Canada and being Haitian, it's so easy for me to transfer that knowledge."
Célestin moved to Canada when he was six years old. When he had the chance to join the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti as a member of the Montreal City Police Service, he jumped on it.
For the past year, he's worked long hours, seven days a week to build a bike patrol — a community policing program — from the ground up.
"All the people involved in the project are so passionate about it," says Célestin. "I'm very proud of the project and the progress we're making, but it's about the teamwork. I couldn't do this by myself."
Pride in the mission
On the evening of February 11, 2014, there was an occasion for the police officers to reflect on it when they came together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Canadian police in peace operations in a special medal ceremony.
Dressed in their blue berets, 67 Canadian police officers received their peacekeeping medal for their first mission. Another 14 received their service numeral for their participation in multiple missions.
Over the past 25 years, more than 3,000 Canadian police officers have participated in missions in 30 countries. Two-thirds of them have served on various missions in Haiti since 1993, making it the largest and longest mission in the history of the program.
The medal is a source of pride for the officers, says contingent commander Supt. Mike McDonald.
"For officers coming back and having the privilege to serve in mission, it brings us back to the grassroots that motivated many of us to become police officers in the first place," says McDonald. "There is no greater place in which you can see the need on people's faces."
A part of something bigger
Like Célestin, every Canadian police officer serving in the mission has his or her own reasons for joining. They each bring something different to a country that sees the benefit of their presence every day.
After ten days of violent protests in Ouanaminthe, in the northeast of Haiti, RCMP Cpl. J.-F. Leduc worked hard to restore peace.
To ease the tension, Leduc would engage locals in conversation. "I'd say a little joke in my best creole and slowly get their trust and get them listening," says Leduc. "I'd explain to them, 'When you don't have electricity, I don't have electricity. When you have a hard time finding food, I have a hard time finding food.' As soon as you get a dialogue going with them, you see their faces and body language relax."
Leduc's experience in Haiti has given him a greater awareness of how volatile the country still is and how easily the country could regress.
"I recognize that we're not going to change anything generational in the one year we're here," says Leduc. "But when I see pictures a few years from now of a friend of mine, then I'll see that something has changed for the better. Change doesn't come overnight."
As the assistant to the police commissioner, Cpl. Marie-Josée Homsy sees a completely different side of the mission than most.
"When I came to mission, I was expecting to be in the field with the local police and local people, but it's the complete opposite," says Homsy. "I'm with senior management all the time, but it's very interesting because I'm learning how the mission is run. It's quite a privilege to be here."
Homsy first came to Haiti as part of a military mission in 1997. At that time, she saw the work that the police were doing. And ever since joining the RCMP, she's wanted to go back to Haiti as a police officer.
"It's a different lifestyle here," says Homsy. "It makes you appreciate everything you have back at home."