MacEwan University’s Global Awareness Week is an annual, five-day campaign to raise awareness about universal issues such as human rights, gender equality, poverty, international peace, and environmental sustainability. Early this month, one of their staple events, the SAMU Speaker Series, featured Will Butler and Marika Anthony-Shaw of the Montreal-based band Arcade Fire. The 2-time Grammy winners shared the story of a journey that has recently raised over six figures in donations for one of the poorest countries in the world: Haiti.
The band’s involvement stemmed from member Regine Chassagne’s ancestry, and the inspiration she provided for her fellow members to respond to Haiti’s call for support. The Chassagne’s family themselves fled Haiti in the 1960s to escape the dictatorship, and found refuge in Montreal.
“I started thinking, how can I ignore this petition and that petition, how is this more important than this?” Chassagne said, in the Daily Texan. “Well my family is Haitian, and Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, so, that was pretty high on my list.”
And so the band started with “giving just a little shit,” according to Marika, “which is all you really need to have an impact”. Soon their contribution to and admiration for Haiti began to evolve.
“In North America, we have a default position of individualism, and assume we can do everything ourselves,” Butler says. “We take our infrastructure for granted. In Haiti, they do not have the basics – government, public services, health care. People shouldn’t die from not being able to get a tetanus shot in 2012.” To help their cause, Arcade Fire turned to Partners in Health to help avoid wading through the murky waters that can be celebrity charities and Haiti’s notorious corruption.
Founded in 1987 by Paul Farmer and a few friends, Partners in Health is a charity that emphasizes healthcare as a human right. After the 2010 earthquake that rocked the capital city of Port-au-Prince, PIH became the main system of health care which allowed Arcade Fire to experience first hand the extremes of poverty and what it would take to help. Will Butler recalled one of their most startling experiences; Bronte, a single Haitian mother, was the only nurse in her relief camp of 5,000 people. In addition to caring for her own child and 5,000 sick and injured Haitians, she was also responsible for the human waste management, which amounted to hand digging the port-a-potties and their maintenance. Bronte’s commitment to her people and sense of hope was aspirational for the band.
Inspired by their experience, the band has started plus1, a movement created to connect bands, fans, and charities where the focus is educating members on different causes and acting as a mediator to ensure funds are properly distributed. As well, for every concert ticket sold, $1 is donated to each band’s charity of choice. “It’s not us helping the Haitians across a divide. It’s about making a common cause with these Haitians who respond to problems like any of us,” Butler said. “What makes people healthy is more complicated than just giving them a pill.”
During their presentation, Anthony-Shaw recalled sharing their vision and their organization with the legendary ‘Uncle Bono’, who replied, “don’t try and save the world, it’s too hard.” Taking his advice to heart, the band started with incremental steps at first, but soon their passion had grown and the steps had become strides.
Banner graphics courtesy of Arcade Fire. Photography courtesy of Peter Brown.