Tuesday September 30, 2014

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Two Haitian mayors in rural Quebec: the improbable path of two friends


Amos., Que, Mayor Ulrick Cherubin stands in front of city hall in Amos on Monday, March 4, 2013. Cherubin and former Haitian classmate Michel Adrien, who separately fled the Duvalier regime to Canada four decades ago, are popular mayors of their respective cities in a pocket of Quebec's hinterland.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

AMOS, Que. - They're a long way from the Haitian campus where they dreamed of life abroad at a time when their homeland was under Papa Doc's despotic grip.

Former schoolmates Ulrick Cherubin and Michel Adrien, however, could have never imagined how far the future would actually take them.

Today, the men, who separately fled the Duvalier regime to Canada four decades ago, are popular mayors of their respective cities in a pocket of Quebec's hinterland.

The last time an outlying Quebec town made headlines on the subject of integrating minorities, it was Herouxville's story of controversy and discord.

The two cities of Amos and Mont-Laurier, communities of roughly 13,000 souls each, tell a different tale.

While the municipalities led by Cherubin and Adrien have minuscule numbers of visible minorities, the voters have repeatedly handed them fresh mandates via landslide election wins and by acclamation.

Cherubin, 69, mayor of Amos since 2002, said he immediately felt at home in the mining and logging community after being lured here by a two-year teaching contract. It was 1973 and he had just finished his education degree in Trois-Rivieres, Que.

"I came here to stay for two years and now it's been 40 years," Cherubin said in a recent interview at his office in Amos, about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

Adrien said he received a warm welcome of his own after moving to Mont-Laurier, also for a teaching job, in 1969. The former high-school physics teacher had immigrated to Montreal from Haiti the year before.

"What struck me at the time... was the extreme kindness of the people," Adrien, 66, said in a phone interview.

The men first met in the 1960s at their Port-au-Prince university, where Adrien tutored Cherubin in preparation for math exams.

"If we were told at the time that the two of us would become mayors of cities in Quebec, we would have said: 'Come on, that's impossible,' " said Adrien, who's been Mont-Laurier's mayor since 2003.

The men lost contact with each other in Haiti and didn't reconnect until they met again in Quebec during the 1990s, when both served as members of their cities' councils.

The lives of Cherubin and Adrien, however, have followed parallel paths to an improbable degree.

Both were born in Haiti's coastal city of Jacmel. Both married nurses after moving to Quebec. And both served as city councillors for eight years before entering — and winning — their first mayoral races.

Neither has looked back and both say they will seek re-election in November.

The same resource-rich region also boasted a Haitian-born municipal leader in the past, a man described by many as Canada's first elected black mayor.

In the 1960s and '70s, Firmin Monestime ran the tiny town of Mattawa, Ont., about 400 kilometres from both Amos and Mont-Laurier.

Adrien believes relatively young, pioneer towns like these show an openness to newcomers.

He and Cherubin say they have never been the target of prejudice in their adoptive communities —except for one situation that surfaced during Adrien's first run for the mayoralty.

Adrien said his rival's campaign included the slogan: "Vote for me, vote for someone who looks like you."

The strategy backfired in a big way.

"His ad was very poorly received because I got close to 80 per cent of the vote," he said.

"I think he got less than 10 per cent of the votes."

Adrien and the people of Mont-Laurier, about 250 kilometres northwest of Montreal, did have to adjust to each other a little bit.

He was one of many teachers hired to work in the region during the 1960s and '70s. Several of the new professors, he added, were visible minorities.

Adrien recalled how, back then, some parents were surprised when they met him for the first time.

"(Many parents) weren't not used to mixing with visible minorities," he said.

Adrien joked that by being one of only a handful of black men in town, he was forced to maintain a pristine driving record.

"We were easy to identify," he said.

Neither mayor has seen their city become more diverse since they were first elected, but it's not an area of concern for Cherubin.

"The colour of skin is not what makes the person," said Cherubin, who moved to Canada from Haiti in 1970.

"What makes a person is what's in his head, in his heart."

Cherubin was gently ribbed by colleagues for a slip of the tongue he once made during a meeting with members of a local First Nations community.

During that gathering, Cherubin said he was told he mistakenly said: "We white people, we don't have the same way of doing things as aboriginals."

He doesn't recall making the remark, but says it's not a big deal if he did say it.

"I don't look at my own colour, either," Cherubin said.

Coincidentally, Cherubin's first journey to Amos in 1973 took him to Mont-Laurier, which lies along the route between Montreal and Amos.

After driving for several hours, a puzzled Cherubin figured that somehow he must have missed Amos. A gas-station attendant told him he had to keep going for another 350 kilometres.

"I didn't think it was possible that anyone could live any further," Cherubin recalled.

"I thought I had arrived at the other end of the world."

With stretches of wilderness at their doorsteps, Adrien and Cherubin have both taken an interest in fishing since moving to Quebec. Adrien has also become a dedicated partridge and hare hunter.

The men have become better friends over the years — and are much closer now than they were back in Haiti. They often share ideas about managing their cities and municipal projects.

But discussions about their unlikely roads to mayoralty in rural Quebec don't come up, Cherubin insists.

"We've never taken the time to talk about that, saying something like, 'Hey, Michel, life is weird — we come from pretty much the same place and we followed the same path,' " he said.

"After all these years, it becomes practically banal. It's normal."


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