While Constable Antoinette Rowe relished the year she spent in Haiti performing critical peacekeeping and peace support duties, she’s glad to be back home safe.
Last December, she and three United Nations Police (UNPOL) officers were ambushed in Port-au-Prince by protestors who were prohibited from marching close to the police station where she was assigned. The mob, demanding the resignation of President Michael Martelly, hurled concrete boulders, glass bottles, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at the police. The protest was led by Haitian parliamentarian Arnel Belizaire – he carries an M-16 and is opposed to the UNPOL presence in Haiti. He fired at least 60 shots at Rowe and the officers.
“Had it not been for two Jordanian Police Units (they are trained in public order management), I don’t think I would be standing here,” said Rowe, who returned home on February 18. “It was confirmed that it was him and he was shooting at us from a distance.
"The JPU were strategic in keeping back the nearly 600 protestors using gas and other protective means and we, as a team, managed to keep the station intact.”
The close call didn’t overshadow the pleasant memories of her fellow officers and the Haitian people that the Traffic Services officer brought back.
“I had an opportunity that is given to a very few and I am very grateful for that,” she said. “I was working alongside UNPOL officers, some of whom are from countries that face similar issues of instability like Haiti. When they meet a Canadian for the first time, they speak highly of us. I don’t think we in Canada realize how fortunate we are to be living in a peaceful nation that prides itself on openness and respect. I was very fortunate to work at a station in the downtown core of Port-au-Prince. It opened my eyes and provided me with an in-depth look and appreciation of the daily struggles so many face. Despite having almost nothing, people keep going and give you the warmest of greetings when you reach out to them. They also ask you about your families. I have left behind some very special people who will never be forgotten. I wish I had another year with this mission.”
I had an opportunity that is given to a very few and I am very grateful for that
The 15-year officer promises to return to Haiti to reunite with friends she made in the last year. “You can’t spend a year there and not leave a piece of yourself behind,” she added. “There are so many opportunities to help and I have many friends I made along the way who I can’t forget about. They were incredibly supportive in helping me understand their country and its complexities.”
Rowe initially applied to be part of the RCMP-led policing deployment to Afghanistan, but was later accepted to the United Nations Haiti mission that nearly 2,000 Canadian police officers have served in since 1993.
“Haiti was the perfect fit for me because I can speak the language,” she said. “It also made it easy for the connection with me and the Haitian police officers. I was happy to be sent to a Division doing frontline policing because I have a lot of experience in that area.”
Six months ago, Rowe was promoted to lead the team at her station, which is one of the largest and busiest in the Haitian capital. It included officers from Jordan, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the United States, France, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali and the Philippines, among other countries.
“The process that led to my selection as team leader was very competitive,” recalled Rowe. “In addition to being responsible for my team, I was working closely with the station’s unit commander. I was in unfamiliar territory as I had never had to take on supervisory responsibilities like this before. It was a learning curve that challenged me to bring more to the table. I worked with the unit commander to put in place a school resource program much like what we have in Toronto.”
When not busy on the job, Rowe volunteered at a Canadian-sponsored orphanage and distributed donations she solicited for children.
“I was part of a team that treated about 50 children weekly to a warm meal and baked goodies,” she said. “I also worked with friends and family to bring toys, clothes and art supplies to Haiti. This was for a policing initiative that I put together for my team at our station.”
Deputy Chief Mark Saunders, Traffic Services Superintendent Gord Jones and Sergeant Steve Henkel, who returned from Haiti last August, joined other Service members and Rowe’s family and friends at Lester B. Pearson International Airport to greet the returning officer. Saunders spent a week in Kabul in December 2013, visiting Toronto Police officers in the Afghan city.
“It’s important to show recognition for the work that we, as police officers, do not just in the City of Toronto but around the world,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to see what they do and the impact that they have on various communities. The feedback we get is amazing. Not only do we deal with crisis situations and training and education, but also conflict resolution and all of these principles that we were able to learn as Toronto Police officers. You can see how important it is when we train other countries on it and the value that it offers to those countries.
“I have had the privilege of working with Constable Rowe when I was in Homicide and I found her to be an officer with tremendous professionalism but, more importantly, she gets it. She understands the importance of service and the value that it has for individuals. I know for a fact she would have been a tremendous ambassador for our Service, so I am so glad that she’s back, she’s healthy and she’s surrounded by loved ones right now. Each officer who goes on these missions comes back a different human being because they learn so much more about life that is not the North American way. You truly learn so many things from others and you get to bring that back, share it with us and, in the process, give us a stronger understanding of why we have all decided to be in a profession that understands the importance of service and community.”
Constable Edward Parks, of 51 Division, was also among the welcome party for the returning officers at Pearson International Airport.
Rowe was his coach officer when he joined the Service seven years ago and the two families have a close friendship. Parks’ wife, Barb, and their children, Ethan and Jayden, were also at the airport. The families have vacationed together and Rowe is Ethan’s godmother.
“While Antoinette was in Haiti, she would Skype with the kids and they had a good time,” said Parks. Rowe was the fourth Service member to be deployed to Haiti. Constables Daniel Saleh and Jean Bresse were the first Toronto Police officers who went to the Caribbean country since police deployments there started just over two decades ago. They returned home in August 2013 from the year-long assignment, working alongside local police officers.
Sergeant Steve Henkel came back last August, after spending a year sharing his policing experience with Haitian Coast Guard officers and assisting a local orphanage.
Constable Guy Kama, the only other Toronto Police officer on an overseas peacekeeping deployment at present, returns from Haiti later this year.
Since 1999, a total of 89 Service members have been deployed to Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Jordan, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Haiti through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police International Peace Operations branch. The Canadian mission in Afghanistan ended last March. Nearly 300 Canadian police officers served in the war-torn country in the last 11 years.