As Haiti descended into political chaos in the 1990s, U of G grad John Remillard found himself helping to bring order to the troubled nation as a United Nations peacekeeper. It was a life-changing experience.
“My first UN mission in Haiti in 1995 was a life within a life,” he says. “There was such intensity. It had just been liberated from a dictatorship, and the UN moved in. Imagine a country that had hired 2,000 police officers at one time, all about 20 years old. We were there to train, coach, and mentor them. Every day was amazing.”
Since boyhood, Remillard wanted to be a police officer. In 1983, he moved from his hometown Quebec City to Toronto to join the Ontario Provincial Police. He spent 31 years with the OPP, retiring in 2014. Soon after, he became a justice studies professor at University of Guelph-Humber. He is a 2007 graduate of U of G’s justice studies program.
He participated in UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan, Haiti, and East Timor, all as a Canadian police officer. Remillard says the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began taking part in UN peacekeeping missions in 1989, when 100 officers were sent to Namibia to monitor elections. The popular program was extended to other police forces.
“Probably the greatest highlight of my life was being the very first OPP officer to touch down on foreign soil on a UN mission, because I made sure I was the first one to get off the plane. That first mission in Haiti was six months long.”
The Haiti mission thrust him into an extraordinary situation. For the first time in many years, citizens of the country had hope and a measure of safety.
“People were able to come out of their homes without getting shot in broad daylight,” he says.
He and other Canadian police officers were responsible for creating a unique detective squad to investigate political homicides that happened during a 1991 coup d’état that ousted democratically elected president Jean- Bertrand Aristide.
“I was the very first OPP officer to touch down on foreign soil on a UN mission” ~ John Remillard
“Imagine taking 2,000 brand new 20-year-olds who have no experience and being told to take the best men and train them to be detectives.”
Remillard says Haitians had nothing and yet they were able to experience great joy.
“I was in the absolutely worst, poorest neighbourhood in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which is Cité Soleil. You would not believe how these people lived. But they were very happy people.”
Witnessing that happiness made him appreciate his own life much more. To this day, he says, if he finds himself complaining about relatively minor things, he immediately pictures the women of Cité Soleil, water barrels on their heads, walking a kilometre to get barely drinkable water.
“The honeymoon phase ended in Haiti and the people started saying, ‘We’re done being happy. Where’s the money, the opportunities, the lack of corruption?’ I don’t believe I made an impact to the society. But on a personal level – everyone I’ve been in touch with, worked with, became friends with and helped – I feel I made a positive impact on them.”
He uses his vast personal experiences in peacekeeping as a teaching aid in his Guelph-Humber courses.