An August 19 attack on the Port-au-Prince police headquarters by pissed-off former Haitian soldiers should be a wake up call to Canadians. So far, the Haiti UN mission has seemed as safe as the soldiers’ quip, the “Haitian Vacation”. The UN soldiers patrol the capital in rickety Italian trucks, stopping to chat with the locals. On the surface, this mission looks like summer camp compared to the nightmare of enforcing peace in the former Yugoslavia.
But for one crucial factor: The UN troops are propping up an increasingly unpopular government. A government that is seen by many Haitians to be getting its orders from Washington, not Port-au-Prince. Canadian troops lead the UN mission in Haiti and make up 700 of the 1500 soldiers stationed there (the rest are from Pakistan and Bangladesh). There is a serious danger they will be caught in the crossfire of any uprising or coup attempt.
Canadian troops shadow president Rene Preval 24 hours a day and also guard the National Police. When I visited the dilapidated palace in July, with its handful of Canadian troops banging away on laptop computers, I could only hope nobody will want to mess with the UN.
The two prongs of Haitian renewal – reforming the economy and the justice system – are both being directed by the U.S.. Haitian senator Jean-Robert Martinez had a theory about the August 19 attack, which killed a shoeshine boy. Martinez believes it was in retaliation for government plans to privatize Haiti’s rotting nationalised industries – a condition for receiving loans from the U.S. and the Washington-based International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Haiti is a good example of the carnage of cynical U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. wooed and then coddled the corrupt Haitian elite to run its sweatshops. As the “development” organization USAID once said, Haiti could be the “Taiwan of the Caribbean”. The U.S. trained the Haitian death squad Front pour l’Avancement et le Progres Haitien (FRAPH), who then littered the outskirts of Port-au-Prince with the bodies of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s supporters during the dark days of the 1991 coup.
Three weeks ago American troops from the 82nd Airborne plopped down on the streets of Port-au-Prince to spend a week patrolling. What kind of message does this send? This tells the Haitians that the UN isn’t the real deal; that if they get out of line, the Americans will kick their butts. Why does Canada allow the U.S. to undermine the credibility of our peacekeeping mission?
More visits by the Americans can be expected. It is no accident that a medical team attached to the 82nd Airborne remains on duty at the American base in Port-au-Prince.
The so-called justice reforms are mostly window dressing. Canada spent $4,750,000 to build and renovate court houses for the same corrupt judges that were the problem in the first place. That’s the equivalent of punishing a thief by buying him/her some new furniture.
Rather than telling the Haitians to tighten their buckles around hungry bellies, Canada should be leading the fight to pave roads and provide clean water and social services to all. Canada should not be helping to impose austerity economics on the Western hemisphere’s poorest country.
The little tiger-striped four-by-four is definitely going too fast. In an instant, the diminutive Suzuki stands balanced, its front wheels squashed at 90 degrees. A millisecond later, it’s on its back like a ladybug flipped over by the wind. The cacophony of the crowd reaches a crescendo. But the noise had been building; the Skydome crowd saw the writing on the wall for the little jeep.
Frantic helpers pry open the door of the jeep, wrestling free the driver, Dwayne Robichaud. He emerges in an orange jump suit and prances around, looking vaguely like the Oklahoma bomber. The audience lets out an even louder cheer as he walks away, smug and happy.
Half an hour earlier, two monster trucks, Young Gun and Samson, line up behind a pile of crushed cars, with a dirt ramp at each end. The methanol engines let out a roar like the mother of all hairdryers. The revving turns into a drag race. The pulsating white noise rattles the cavernous Dome. The effect on the audience is almost sexual: the stomach rattles, the heart skips a few beats. It is a short buzz, but it is good. And the noise? I begin to notice that everyone around me has ear plugs and I realize I’m going to regret this in 20 years.
The exhaust fumes are starting to reach toxic levels 40 minutes into the rally. I shake my head and feel the motion a few seconds later. I’m getting a CO2 buzz, too. It’s the USA Motor Spectacular monster truck derby at Toronto’s Skydome. But monster trucks are just a small part of the show, there for the crowd to ogle while they get off on the noise. There is the amateur truck rally involving the tippy Suzuki and other monster-truck wannabees, and a ridiculous car-eating, fire-breathing robot called Robosaurus for the kids. The metal bashing of the demolition derby serves to satiate the audience’s thirst for damage – and is truly the highlight of the night.
I can’t get out of my mind comparisons to spectacles in Roman times. Titans of spectacle, the Romans set the benchmark by which all other public entertainment must be judged. On the spectacular scale, Roman bloodsports involving gladiators, wild animals and the sacrificing of Christians definitely rate a 10 – anything else falls below. I figure monster trucks rate about 4. Watching pick-up trucks with over-sized $10,000 tractor tires crush cars can’t match the gore and death of ancient Rome but it will do for now.
If monster trucks join professional wrestling and American Gladators as today’s answer to blood sports, why does this spectacle seem to lack that je ne sais quoi? Maybe it’s the sanitization of risk. The cabin of a monster truck coddles the driver. There are cushioned seats, a kidney brace, a five-point racing harness, neck braces, helmet restraints and a roll bar. Several drivers tell me that the job only looks dangerous. At half time, Young Gun’s Saskatoon-based driver, Kevin Weenks, tells me he doesn’t seek out danger. “I think some of those (amateur) guys are nuts and want to do the crowd a big favour [die]. You don’t want to run it hard. A win isn’t worth flipping over.”
Thirty demolition derby wrecks crawl into the centre of the Skydome. The flag is dropped and an orgy of car crushing begins. It goes on for half an hour. Now I’m not bored. Cars are still driving despite engine fires and rear-ends that stand at 45 degrees. It is down to two cars: one more or less intact, the other driving on its hubs, engine on fire, half its back a mangled piece of crumpled paper. The driver doesn’t give up. His engine stops, then starts again. This is repeated three times until, exhausted, he concedes defeat.
After the derby it’s time for Robosaurus. The press release claims the hunk of grey metal stands five stories tall and costs $2.1 million. The driver flicks on the switch on a very expensive stereo system and Robosaurus starts to growl like Godzilla. Two guys with radio headsets help direct the beast onto the floor. It burps and farts for a while before picking up a pre-cut car. It crushes it, drops it to the floor and incinerates it with a flame thrower. The crowd roars.
It seems things haven’t changed with spectacles. The Romans drew on slaves, freed men, foreigners and the lower social orders to provide fodder for their spectacles. Monster trucks are driven by farmers hired for six months at a time. The amateur drivers are a hodgepodge of laid-off workers, farm labourers and guys who make a meagre living fixing four-by-fours.
Wearing a waist-length monogrammed racing jacket is Don Frankish. The shy and patient Alberta grain farmer owns two of the four monster trucks in Canada. He has been racing for seven years and divides his year 50/50 between farming and tours on the monster truck circuit, which mostly takes him through the U.S.
He is definitely attracted to the excitement of the stadium, but not necessarily a love of death-defying acts. “It’s the rush of the crowd as they get behind you, talking to the kids who look at you as a superhero,” he says. “I like the speed, the unpredictability. We know the risks. There is a danger to it. But the Monster Truck Racing Association makes sure we have a killer radio to shut off the engines if the truck is out of control. The worst I’ve ever seen is a truck going end over end three times – it just destroyed the truck.” I ask him about insurance and he laughs. “We can’t get insurance!”
Down in the pit, the air is thick with exhaust fumes. The pit boys are milling about, patting each other on the back. A sprinkling of pit girls hang around, with hairstyles straight out of Xena: Warrior Princess. The dress for today is black: black t-shirts and black jeans. Don McGuire, 32-year-old partner in the Three Stooges four-by-four shop in Brampton, sports a mischievous grin as he tells me with pride about his chosen vocation: mud bog racing. It’s the messier outdoor version of tonight’s amateur truck rally. McGuire has been a mud bog racer for 10 years and isn’t doing it for the money. “First prize is just $200 – I spring for more money than I would ever win,” he says. “We do this for the pure adrenaline. It’s just heart and soul. It takes bucks per cubic inch to win in this business,” he says resentfully, looking across the Skydome to where the monster trucks are parked. Big Foot’s sponsorship by Ford seems to be a sore point with racers who spend thousands of their own dollars to come here.
McGuire gave up a $700 a week job to earn $300 a week and race. “I got laid off too many times. Now, I work harder for less money. But I get to do what I want to do. Not many people get that.”
Niagara Falls – Niagara Falls has always been a town that attracted big dreamers with even bigger schemes. The beauty of the Falls has intoxicated many with grand ideas. Towards the turn of the century, the inventor of the Gillette safety razor, King Camp Gillette, tried to transform the American side into a Utopian paradise, planning to house most of the US population in a community of beehive-style high-rises covering an area 135 miles long and 45 miles wide.
Given the long history of grand schemes to remake both sides of Niagara Falls, it is hard not to see the hyperbole surrounding the planned casnio, slated to open by the end of the year, as another over-hyped dream. Just as Gillette spoke of untold riches, the government-owned Ontario Casino Corporation also sees Utopia ready to be born at the edge of the Falls. As provincial tourism minister Doug Saunderson said last month, “The casino and tourist development will provide Niagara with a kick start into the 21st century… I believe they will move Niagara to the very top of the list of destinations for world travellers.”
Those expectations sound even more impressive if you believe the government’s estimates for job creation. In a city of 76,000, the government projects between 3,000 and 9,000 jobs will result from the casino and its spin-offs. With numbers like that, it is hard to find many people who will say no.
Everywhere in Niagara Falls’ tourist district roads are being ripped up. Tourists from New York, Japan and Quebec tread through the clouds of gravel dust to see the Falls. But it isn’t just the government which is dreaming big for Niagara Falls.
Three dreams are fighting in this town for the hearts and souls of its residents, and depending on your perspective, have their merits. One, a scheme being championed by a group of local church leaders, is to build a wholesome theme park based around the exploits of local heroine Laura Secord during the War of 1812. Another more flamboyant scheme that has been on and off again since 1993, involves building a $1.4 billion theme park dedicated to transcendental meditation. So far, the casino is winning hands down.
The casino on its own is helping to raise another dream, phoenix-like, from the ashes. In 1979, the DiCenzo family built Maple Leaf Village as a joint shopping mall/theme park attraction. Now it sits derelict, waiting for renovations by the Buttcon construction company to turn it into the temporary site for the casino.
The run-down Maple Leaf Village, with its old-world European facade resembling a castle, became known for tacky attractions like the JFK Assassination Museum, the Elvis Presley Museum and the Nightmares Therapy Centre.
Judy MacCarthy has fought plans to build a casino since they were first discussed. She helped put together a coalition of church groups called the Try Another Way Committee. MacCarthy’s dream involves a theme park extolling the virtues of Laura Secord, whose claim to fame was snitching on the American invaders, having them ambushed by Indians near Niagara Falls.
MacCarthy says the provincial government has shown some interest in the project, even sending officials from Toronto to meet with her.
As for the more ambitious transcendental meditation theme park, it looks as if the whole project hangs on securing enough funds to get it off the ground.
In 1993, Maharishi Veda Land’s chair, the effervescent magician Doug Henning, told the media that Niagara Falls had to make up its mind: choose between the transcendental theme park, with its centre-piece floating bridge, or the moral decadence of a casino.
Three years later, what many thought to be a project even less tangible than Henning’s metaphysical musings, seems to still have some life left. Tucked away on the 13th floor of a Bay Street office tower in Toronto, Maharishi Veda Land Inc. – Enlightenment, Knowledge, Entertainment – continues to run with a handful of staff. As three office workers scatter behind closed doors, a secretary tells me the theme park is still a go, but refuses to give any more details. But MVL has told a Florida newspaper it isn’t going to build a theme park on property the company owns there.
Ted Cook, the former vice-president of PCL Eastern, the construction company Henning contracted to build the park, says there was a change in attitude: “Henning’s position softened as time passed (over the casino). He became less opposed on moral grounds, and it was now ‘maybe we can make it work’.”
If there was an epicentre to the Niagara dream machine, it is the office of its mayor, Wayne Thompson.
Dean Iorfida is the mayor’s executive assistant. For Iorfida, the casino is a matter of turning a seasonal economy dependent on summer-time tourists into a viable year-round attraction. Even when they do come to Niagara Falls, he says, the average tourist’s stay is just four hours.
Iorfida is dreaming large, imagining the permanent site will include an auditorium, convention centre and amusement park. “Vegas has gone that way,” he says.
But he also wants to see the whole city transformed by the casino. “We have to spread it around or you get a black hole effect: too much in one location.”
As for the complaints that the casino will only add to the tacky reputation of Niagara Falls, Iorfida believes “the city doesn’t want anything that turns people off, but we can’t stop private enterprise. We are talking about one location, I don’t think it will be like Vegas where casinos try to out-garish each other.”
Many associated with the traditional tourist attractions in Niagara are banking on seeing some of the casino cash. Merchants on Clifton Hill, “The street of fun at the falls,” are hoping they can complement the casino rather than compete.
So far, the tourist trap, despite the shabby strip of Clifton Hill with its wax museums and fudge shops, or even the block after block of cheap hotels and motels, has been able to avoid turning into a seedier form of sleaze – it is still a family atmosphere. In fact, the declasse’ tone of the city hides an impressive stability and prosperity that makes the residents of Niagara Falls, New York jealous. For many opposed to the casino, it is this stability that is at stake.
Overhead is the dayglo pink and turquoise marquee of the Movieland Wax Museum, where one can see wax likeness’ of such luminaries as Jim Carrey. Guy Paone, the general manager of the museum, says he is happy about the casino, hoping it will bring year-round business.
“We get families down here,”he says. “If dad wants to go to the casino, then mom and the kids can come here.”
Paone isn’t expecting any business from the die-hard gamblers though. “The hard-core gamblers didn’t come here any way. You know how it is – in Vegas some people don’t eat or sleep.”
As for some of the doom and gloom about increasing crime scaring off the family tourists, Paone doesn’t buy it. “We are pretty tight on petty crime here. I don’t think the casino will affect the family reputation.”
Paone does have a sobering thought he leaves me with, “we are the suicide capital.”
All the hope has already spawned new jobs teaching the unemployed how to gamble. Frank Cricenti, black jack course co-ordinator at the National Casino Academy, joins a growing number of people employed in the lucrative business of teaching the unemployed casino skills. According to Cricenti, casino schools “are just popping up.” At government employment centres, staff are anticipating more than 100,000 applications to flood in chasing the 3,000 jobs being offered. Such a yawning chasm between expectations and reality means times are good for the adult education business.
At the 47-room Cataract Motel, the casino is an excuse to spiff the place up. “We have painted and renovated the rooms so that they look like they’re brand new,” says the motel’s manager, who will only give his name as B. John.
Other property owners are banking on the casino rescuing them from the slump. Eva Klein of Klein Developments, wants to especially unload her pricier properties. “There has been a little bit of change in the rental market, some casino people are moving into town,” Klein tells id. “We’ve had a high vacancy of higher-end rentals in Niagara Falls and we’re expecting these to be filled by a new influx from the casino.”
For Niagara Falls, the casino looks set to turn the city into a smaller, more Canadian Las Vegas. For a city desperate for more work, that doesn’t sound too bad. For the provincial government’s travelling road show, the next stop is to move the existing Windsor casino’s management over to staff the new casino at Niagara Falls.