MONTREAL — Cicilia Laurent arrived at her birthday party, plopped into a comfy, high-backed chair and gave a big yawn before a crowd of dignitaries, diplomats, friends, family and press.
Why shouldn't she? It’s hard work making it to the age of 120.
Despite the understandable indiscretion, the Haitian-born Laurent, who is purported to be the world’s oldest living person, celebrated her big day in style at the Haitian Consulate in Montreal.
She wore a shiny gold dress, a gold-sequin scarf, a gold bracelet and a white hat. She clapped and she sang. She cut her birthday cake (three cakes actually in the shape of number 120). And she was honoured in a speech from Haiti’s Consul General, Kurdy Lareche, who said she was “living proof that health is wealth.”
“With the illnesses that surround us, it’s not easy to live so long,” he said. “It is at once admirable, as well as a blessing and a privilege, that Cicilia has the power to celebrate her 120th birthday.”
There are a couple of things Laurent told the Toronto Star recently that she wanted for her birthday.
She wanted to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That hasn’t happened, but her family is still hoping she will get the opportunity. She also wants to see — perhaps one final time — her great-grandsons back in Haiti, Patrick and Joel. Laurent’s family is still hoping the Canadian government will grant her that wish, with special travel permissions.
The ultimate gift, however, could come from Guinness World Records, the chronicler of humanity's most incredible and outrageous feats, which lists the world’s oldest-ever person as 122-year-old Jeanne Louise Calment of France, who died in 1997.
Laurent’s official birth certificate was issued by the Haitian government only in 2005 through a process for those whose birth was never recorded or whose original proof of birth has been lost. The document states that she was born on Jan. 31, 1896, in Pestel, a village about 300 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to her mother named Erzulie Laurent.
That document may have been proof enough for the Canadian government, who granted Laurent permanent residency in Canada along with the wave of Haitians fleeing their country after the deadly January 2010 earthquake. It is not enough for Guinness, who hold what may be an impossibly high standard for the purported supercentenarian who lives with family in Laval, a suburb north of Montreal.
Robert Young, a consultant for Guinness World Records and a director with the Gerontology Research Group, which investigates, tracks and verifies cases where people claim to be older than 110, has cast doubt on Laurent’s real age.
While he was familiar with her case, he said the statistical chance of an individual living to such an advanced age was so slim as to be practically impossible.
“You have someone claiming to be the second-oldest person of all times — basically as old as Moses — and we can’t simply give a person like that the benefit of the doubt when there’s no proof of birth and the birth record was issued only 10 years ago,” he explained in a previous interview with the Star.
Ron Cherri, Laurent’s grandson and the man who has been handling her growing celebrity, said he was last in touch with a crew from Guinness World Records last month when officials were apparently on the ground in Haiti searching for documentary evidence that would back up Laurent’s birthdate.
“I hope they will find some positive proof, so that there is no more doubt that Madame Cicilia Laurent is the doyenne of the world,” said Raymond Laurent, an unrelated family friend and radio host in Montreal.
Laurent herself doesn’t seem to be in too much of a rush. After a life subsisting in Haiti as a mother of six children and a market seller with a love of turning fabric into dolls and clothes and a deep Christian faith, she is the one who is in demand.
Last Friday, it was Haiti’s Foreign Minister Lener Renauld who took a detour during a Canadian visit to knock on Laurent’s door. During that meeting, Lareche, the Haitian consul in this city, said Laurent made reference to a plague that swept through a part of Haiti a century or so ago—yet more proof for him that her stated age is true.
And on Sunday evening, it was for her that people sang, of her that the crowd of mainly Haitian expatriates made pictures and videos and it was from her that they sought a smile, a touch of her hand and a few words in Haitian Creole.