Grammy-Winning Musician Régine Chassagne’s Inspiring Journey Towards Transforming Haiti’s Neglected Communities
After an inspiring trip to Haiti, Grammy-award-winning musician and co-founder of the band Arcade Fire Régine Chassagne started a non-profit to support the country’s most neglected communities.
Régine Chassagne’s parents never wanted her to travel to Haiti. The Canadian-born musician’s Haitian parents had narrowly escaped the country during the regime of François Duvalier. Ruling from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Duvalier was known for his corrupt and brutal reign, including imprisoning and torturing Haitians and forcing others to live in exile.
“A lot of my extended family members were massacred, and as a child, I had to absorb all this extra weight on my shoulders,” Chassagne said. “My parents were so traumatized by Haiti. They said, ‘Don’t ever go, it’s too dangerous. Don’t go.’”
Chassagne’s mother, in particular, experienced nightmares throughout her life as a result of trauma. Only after her passing did Chassagne decide to travel to Haiti in 2008.
“I didn’t tell anyone — I just went,” Chassagne said.
She travelled with a good friend, the late Paul Farmer, a world-renowned physician and co-founder of the global health organization Partners in Health.
Amid an exhausting but rewarding day of travelling the country’s rural backroads as they visited his medical patients, the duo’s car broke down. As they sat on the ground, awaiting help, Farmer turned to Chassagne.
“He said, ‘Régine, I bring these people back to life from really terrible diseases or ailments, and they fight back, and they do everything they’re supposed to do. They make it back [to health], and then I send them back to what?’” Chassagne recalled Farmer telling her. “That hit me so much… That ‘what’ resonated so hard.”
That moment never left her memory as she thought about the extreme poverty, lack of social services and a myriad of other challenges Haitians faced.
Years later, Chassagne would collaborate with a fellow Haitian, Dominique Anglade, to found the KANPE Foundation. The organization supports people in vulnerable, rural communities in Haiti to become holistically independent by supporting their health, education, agriculture, and leadership, among other social pillars.
“When you start thinking about places where there’s a lot of poverty, it’s never one thing. It’s not just health, and it’s not just education and … having a well dug,” she said. “It’s all of it interconnected so people can get their lives in order.”
And that’s what brought Chassagne into conservation work. Since 98% of people in the communities KANPE supports are subsistence farmers, their ability to farm is “not a matter of profit, it’s a matter of life and death,” Chassagne said, explaining the urgency of maintaining the vegetation amid climate change.
Like many other countries in the Global South, Haiti is one of the worst countries hit by climate change despite being one of the least contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. The country experiences a host of climate effects from soaring temperatures to deforestation — and experts predict extreme climate events such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes will become more intense or frequent.
To combat these effects, KANPE and Age of Union have produced and planted more than 25,000 fruit and forest trees annually in Baille Tourible since 2021, one of the most neglected and underserved towns in the country’s Central Plateau.
In contrast to her work as a musician and co-founder of indie rock band Arcade Fire, Chassagne describes KANPE’s work as “invisible.”
“Day to day, it’s not flashy,” she said.
But this work is critical to rebuilding Haitian communities and supporting them in being autonomous, she shared. Since 2005, Arcade Fire has donated a portion of ticket sales to Partners In Health and KANPE for every concert, raising close to $5 million for Haiti.
Growing up, Chassagne connected to her Haitian culture through aspects of everyday life, from the food at her aunt’s house to the drums she played in her uncle’s basement. Now, she describes her relationship with the country as intimate and spiritual, and she holds space for the bittersweet reality of pursuing sustainable change in a complicated setting.
“There is a lot of injustice on top of injustice on top of injustice — left, right, up, and down — but Haiti is also an amazing country. It’s beautiful. It’s strong. I love Haiti.”
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