OTTAWA - Canada will play a leading role at an international meeting to rally the Haitian diaspora to rebuild their earthquake-battered homeland, The Canadian Press has learned.

The Organization of American States is hosting the three-day gathering of Haitians living abroad in Washington later this month. The meeting will attempt to match expertise from the vast expatriate communities in Montreal, Miami and elsewhere with the massive rebuilding effort the country faces after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The template for the talks is a landmark 2004 meeting hosted by the federal government with the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), the Ottawa-based Latin American affairs think-tank. That session first brought together major international donors and Haitians that had immigrated to such places as Montreal, Miami, France and elsewhere.

"FOCAL have done some very useful things with the diaspora and we've tried to use the documents that came out of those meetings as a bit of a baseline," spokesman Adam Blackwell said Wednesday from OAS headquarters in Washington, where the March 22-24 meeting is being held.

A Canadian-hosted Jan. 25 meeting in Montreal brought together more than a dozen foreign ministers, non-governmental organizations and international banks to set the stage for the major March 31 U.S.-hosted international donors' conference in New York City.

But in the lead-up to that donors' summit, a series of consultations had been planned, and the OAS-hosted talks is one of them. Canada was given the lead on the diaspora issue, while France, the United States and the Inter-American Development bank were charged with engaging donor countries, NGOs and private corporations respectively.

Blackwell said the diaspora meeting was moved to Washington because it was seen as a convenient mid-way point between Montreal and Miami, where two of the largest Haitian diaspora communities reside.

An earlier plan to hold the meeting in Montreal drew the ire of some American-based Haitian groups. The OAS has credited Peter Kent, Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs for the Americas, for suggesting Washington as a compromise location.

"I think that the real outcome should be: how do we insert the diaspora in the long-term development plans for Haiti? How does this become a real process into which they are integrated, whether it be health ... security ... governance?"

Carlo Dade, FOCAL's executive director, said the diaspora is a crucial player, not only for the expertise they hold, but because they are "the largest source of financing, period, for the country."

Estimates of the amount of remittances by Haitian emigres to their homeland vary from about $1.7 billion to $2 billion a year, or about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of Haiti's annual income.

Dade said the 2004 meeting, attended by then Canadian and Haitian prime ministers Paul Martin and Gerard Latorture, resulted in the creation of a roster and evaluation of services and skills the diaspora could offer Haiti.

The 2004 meeting was sparked by the coup that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"What we need now in Haiti is more staff in government ministries, people on the ground to staff NGOs, to build capacity to receive funding coming in. And I think the idea for an inventory of diaspora skills should be back on the table," said Dade.

Dade said the efforts could be modeled after the Repatriation of Qualified Afghans program that the United Nations Organization for International Migration set up after the 9/11 attacks to rebuild Afghanistan after the Taliban was driven from power.

The Jan. 12 quake claimed the lives of scores of key people in Haiti's various government ministries, as well as the local staff of NGOs.

Dade said he expects professionals such as doctors and teachers to be drawn from Canada's mainly Montreal-based diaspora of about 100,000 while the United States will likely supply more business leadership and entrepreneurial skills from its one-million-strong community.

"There is a very well-to-do professional core of Haitian diaspora here ... and I don't doubt that will be the case in Washington," said Rebecca Reichert, director of development for the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas, Inc., a private non-profit organization.

Reichert said her group has tried to connect the Haitian diaspora with programs run by the U.S. State Department's development agency, USAID, and she expected the Washington meeting to be useful.

"Typically the South Florida diaspora is very involved. ... They obviously are very active because they are very close to Haiti," Reichert said from Miami.