Building solidarity and a trades school

Date: 
Monday, July 11, 2016

As a dispatcher for Ironworkers Local 97, Paul Beacom is used to rounding up workers for a job. But earlier this year, Beacom was asked to find a few members to travel to Haiti to help build a new trade school being sponsored by Builders Without Borders and the Canadian Construction Association. After a bit of calling around, he was able to line-up a sixperson crew.

“It’s been kind of slow in our industry this year, so we had people to spare that were interested in helping out.” He thought his contribution to the project was done, but then fate intervened. “At the last minute one of them cancelled and we didn’t have anyone to replace him,” he explained. “So I went.” 

Working in Haiti was an eye-opening experience for Beacom and his fellow ironworkers (Ryan Vaudrin, Kevin Hubich, Dusten Otter, Luke Millican, and Renard  Mikus).

“I don’t think we actually realized quite the significance of doing that job until we got done there.” On one occasion, he said, “We heard gunfights, and had to come off the steel a couple of times.”

Despite nerve-wracking moments, the team had a very positive and eye opening experience in Haiti. Their volunteerism, act of solidarity, and having to spend three weeks away from family, went a long way towards completing a project that has been years in the making and stands to benefit hundreds of disadvantaged young Haitians.

Rebuilding from tragedy 

On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake. In the capital city of Port-au-Prince, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed. The devastating earthquake was one of the deadliest in world history, hitting a country already beset by severe poverty and underdevelopment. 

After overthrowing slavery and French occupation over 200 years ago, Haiti won a hard fought freedom but then was denied prosperity by punitive policies and military interventions imposed by France, the United States, and other big powers. As recently as 2004, the Canadian government backed a coup d’etat against the country’s elected government. The UN military mission that was installed after the coup brought cholera to the island nation, leading to thousands of deaths. The 2010 earthquake heaped tragedy upon misery. 

Undaunted, Haitians have worked to rebuild. And in these vital efforts, they’ve been aided by trade union members like the team from the Ironworkers Local 97, working with partners in industry and the non-profit sector.

Trade school rises from the rubble 

École Lakay, a trades school, was among those buildings badly wrecked by the quake. A new École Lakay is taking shape and coming to completion thanks to an eclectic coalition of Canadians working in partnership with Haitian workers and educators. 

“The Canadian Construction Association promptly went out and raised the equivalent of about $1.7 million, some in money and some in kind,” explained Brian Boone, a retired engineer with Builders Without Borders who travelled with the ironworkers to Haiti. 

The original facility provided training for some 80 students. The new buildings are much larger and will be able to serve over 200 students. The school will also include a residence and services to help young Haitians while they learn woodworking, metal work, plumbing, and other trades. 

“We’re teaching young Haitians, mostly kids off the street who have lost their parents,” explained Boone. 

Sharing skills, broadening horizons 

Boone, who travelled widely as an engineer, recommended the experience to young workers. “You get the hands-on experience of working in challenging situations,” he said. “I think the six guys, the ironworkers, were all quite moved by the experience. They hadn’t seen poverty like that; it shows you there’s another world out there. They all thanked us for the opportunity to broaden their experience.” 

The benefits of this international solidarity project are mutual, he added. “It makes it a lot less expensive when people volunteer their time, and there’s also a transfer of knowledge as we teach local workers how to run the equipment...our Canadian workers can teach a lot just by working side by side with Haitians.”

Boone is pleased by the progress to date, but emphasizes there’s still work to be done and more support is needed. “We’re looking for volunteers and
contributions for drywall, external sheeting, plumbing, and electrical.” 

With just a little more help from their friends from the north, the new École Lakay will be up and running before long. For the people of Haiti, it can’t come soon enough. 

For more information on Builders Without Borders, visit www.builderswithoutborders.org/

To learn more about the Lakay project, visit the Canadian Construction Association’s website: www.ccaacc.com/en/about-cca/lakay/ecole-lakayproject

By Derrick O’Keefe 

For More Information: 

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