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January 2015

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Building a Connection, Haiti to Canada

When IBEW member Kevin McCaig returned home to New Brunswick, N.B., from Haiti in mid-October, he still saw images of the capital Port-au-Prince around him.

Overlooking a valley filled with quiet, green farms, the view from the Saint John, N.B., Local 502 member's back porch reminded him of the view from the trade school he had been building in Haiti. In the last four years, McCaig has volunteered for two aid missions and made three trips there.

"I live in a very rural part of the province but the geography is so similar. I'm struck by how empty this community — which I really enjoy — actually feels now," he said after his first week at home. "In Haiti, there was music, drums and singing from the houses below and people walking everywhere. Even in rural areas, there was always motion and noise."

Before 2010, McCaig's volunteer experience was limited to time as a scout leader and a ball coach. For the last dozen years, he'd been an apprentice instructor at New Brunswick College, and between that, his family, the local and his students, he said, it was a full life.

Then he heard the ad on the radio.

On Jan. 12 an earthquake just outside Port-au-Prince shattered Haiti. A country that had been blurring the lines between chaos and order for decades fell into the abyss. Hundreds of thousands died. More than 2.3 million Haitians — one in five — lost their homes. The U.N. found 60 percent of government buildings, including almost 4,000 schools, were gone.

The ad he heard was from a local charity appealing for help from local trades to transform a half-dozen shipping containers into an orphanage.

"Normally those ads just ask for money or maybe for medical personnel," McCaig said. "They said they were looking for people like me. I had never heard anyone ask for trades before, so I think that's why I volunteered."

Local 502 Business Manager Jean-Marc Ringuette and McCaig have worked together for more than 20 years as journeyman wiremen and then as instructors. Ringuette said the local would not let McCaig and two other members pay their own way to Haiti.

"We were proud of them," Ringuette said. "And we all pretty much agreed that doing good work like they were was enough of a sacrifice."

McCaig had never worked overseas. He'd never been to a country as poor as Haiti. But four weeks later, he followed two other Local 502 members, Dave MacPherson and Eric Fowler, and stepped off the plane.

While in Haiti working on the orphanage, members of a different New Brunswick-based charity came by the construction site. They were friends of Sgt. Mark Gallagher of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Gallagher was training Haitian police officers. He was killed when his apartment building collapsed. Gallagher's friends and family wanted to build a trade school in Haiti in his memory. They were out looking for help.

"It would have been hard not to have heard about Sgt. Gallagher," McCaig said. "He was almost like a small town sheriff and when he died, there was a connection we all felt, even if we hadn't met him."

McCaig agreed to their request to come back.

"I feel a connection to Haiti. It's a known place for me now," he said. "I caught the bug."

McCaig returned to New Brunswick, his family and his students. Life returned to normal, but in New Brunswick and in Haiti, plans for the trade school moved ahead, although at times the progress was so slow it seemed like it stopped. Months went by with no word on when McCaig might return.

The school was a joint project of the Friends of Mark Gallagher and a local religious order, the Little Sisters of St. Theresa. Fundraising took another 10 months. Just clearing the earthquake debris took almost a year. Once the land was clear, people with nowhere safe to stay moved onto the land and construction was put off. Setbacks and delays were the rule before the quake, and now it was worse.

Almost 18 months after he said yes, McCaig was going back. A shipping container was set to arrive in Haiti filled with construction and teaching supplies, much of it donated by Local 502 retirees, the local, signatory contractors and suppliers. McCaig planned two trips: The first in June to install the basic electric backbone for construction and a return in September to do finish work. But a customs delay meant none of the supplies were available in June.

"I basically wandered around fixing things in the convent and the neighborhood," he said. "It was a disappointment."

But three months later he was back and everything was different. McCaig and a handful of master tradesmen supervised and trained the incoming class. They were paid to build their own workshop.

"That was the best part of the trip," McCaig said. "So many of them would work for free on days when they weren't scheduled, just to learn and play a bigger part in building their own school. It was inspiring."

Ringuette said he is not surprised that McCaig came away saying he took away more than he left behind.

"Kevin was always the guy who went and built the things we talked about making," Ringuette said. "He'd pull a bunch of scrap construction equipment together and out would come a wind turbine that may not have won any engineering awards but it always worked. He liked the challenge of doing it, but he did it to explain things to the apprentices. That is what he loves."

McCaig said he was grateful to all the people who made the trip possible: the Haitian students, Sgt. Gallagher's family and friends, members of local 502 and, especially, his own family.

"One of the guys from the project asked me where I was off to next," McCaig said. "My son planned his wedding around this trip. I owe it to my family to hang out for a while. I can't go off for nine months when the next disaster hits. But I can't say for next year..."


Saint John, N.B., Local 502 member John McCaig, fourth from left, stands with some of the students he worked with to build a trade school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.