Canada and Haiti: A Detour through History that Leads to the Present

April 24, 2010

by Paul Jackson

The only question that matters at the moment is: What do Haitians want? The answer has been perfectly clear each time that the question has been asked: Haitians want to control their own country. They have always worked towards that goal. They have fought for that goal. They have suffered and died for that goal. Empires have worked to thwart that goal. Empires have fought against that goal. Empires have inflicted pain and killed to prevent the realization of that goal. But we can all learn and none of us need be victims of our histories. We can know our histories and thereby free ourselves for our futures. Canadians have a long history in Haiti that is almost completely unknown here in Canada. It is much better understood in Haiti. As Joegodson always tells me, let’s bring it into the light so that we can see it better.

Over the last twenty years, Haitian control of Haiti has been synonymous with Lavalas. It grew out of liberation theology. In Haiti, liberation theology was called the Ti Gliz, or Little Church, movement. Somehow, foreign secular analysts have a way of taking spirituality out of Haitian society to prepare it for a Western audience. In my time in Haiti and since, I have come to appreciate Haitian spirituality: Vodouist, Catholic, and Protestant.

In 1942, Montreal hosted a huge exposition consecrated to its extensive Catholic missions in the infidel countries of the world. The Catholic Church, especially powerful in Quebec, saturated French Canada with news from the foreign missions from 1930 to 1970. The goal was unequivocal: convert and civilize the pagans for the Church. In that context, there was a series of radio interviews with missionaries from the field. In one case, a Quebec nun promoted the work of her congregation, Les Filles de la Sagesse, in Haiti. She explained to a curious boy that a Haitian living in Montreal “would surely be civilized and a good Catholic.” Haitians in Haiti, however, were neither. They undermined the work of the missionaries by mixing vodou, “an old African superstition,” with the revealed truths of Catholicism. Sorcerers got money out of their victims by threatening them with the vengeance of divinities. They prayed to evil vodou spirits that they confused with the sacred Catholic saints and even identified the Virgin Mary as Mistress Erzulie. In response to denunciations by the (white, foreign) Catholic priests, the vodou sorcerers deviously advised their followers to go to Church and pretend to take part in the mass, all the while corrupting it from within: they told the children the real, vodouist meaning of the sacraments and forbade them to share this heresy with the priests and nuns, (who thus became the dupes of the vodou priests and priestesses.) The Montreal boy, in what seems to have been a scripted response, summarized the sorry situation: “They want to believe that Catholicism is something that can be added to their beliefs, rather than replace them. … What a difficult job for the missionaries to make the light shine in that darkness!”

Since 1860, French and Belgian religious orders had controlled the Catholic Church in Haiti. Their French Canadian confreres took over during the Second World War when the Europeans were otherwise “occupied” in Europe. Male and female French Canadian congregations came to dominate the Haitian Church in the subsequent decades, filling the roles that had been prepared for them by the Europeans.

Since the revolution that created Haiti in 1804, a tiny minority has distinguished itself from the great majority of Creole-speaking and vodou-worshipping peasants. That elite accepted the categories through which the French had administered the colony before the slaves overthrew them. France, French culture and language represented civilization for the new elite. Their status depended on their identification with the world outside of Haiti. They spoke French, went to the Catholic Church, and their skin was generally much lighter than the majority. They allied themselves with foreign Western interests against those who bore the marks of slavery: black skin, the Creole language, and vodou. While the elite profited from their labour, they also held the peasants in contempt, perhaps since they reflected to the bourgeoisie their own roots in slavery and in Africa. The term afrikan is a common epithet in Creole in Haiti.

Today, wealthy Haitian women spend enormous amounts of money to have their skin bleached and their hair straightened, in the hope of accessorizing their fluency in French. When they enter Canada, Haitians all become black and subject to North American racism and racial categories. In Haitian Creole, the word racism is almost synonymous with class prejudice.

The class and social structures from the revolutionary period were still in place when the Canadian missionaries arrived in Haiti. For instance, the Pères de Sainte Croix from Montreal took over the College Notre-Dame in Cap-Haitien in the north of Haiti. They educated a national elite in French that could then control the exportation of the surplus coffee and sisal produced by the illiterate masses, themselves ignorant of the world beyond their isolated mountain communities. From the Creole-speaking peasant perspective, white Catholic foreigners educated a largely mulatto local elite who together spoke French. They were also acquainted with the American marines, who, since 1915, ruthlessly defended puppet regimes in Port-au-Prince against all peasants who dared assert their right to their own country. The American marines, departed in 1934, had trained an indigenous police force to take their place. In 1940, the missionaries joined forces with the Haitian state, elite, and police to eradicate vodou from Haiti once and for all.

What is most disturbing (and inspiring) about the nun’s Montreal address in 1942 is its accuracy. However, she left out a few facts that we can now consider. The 1940 to 1942 anti-superstition campaign, supported by the Vatican, had all of the hallmarks of a bloody, medieval Inquisition. The police did the bidding of the priests and the elite, terrorizing anyone suspected of vodou practice. Every object and temple related to vodou was destroyed, which amounts to cultural genocide. Unknown numbers were killed and maimed in the violence to ensure that the Africans of Haiti stop undermining the authority of the Church and the civilized elite. It was an expression of hatred in the name of God and civilization.

In 1973, Yvon Joseph, one of the first Haitians to be ordained into the Pères de Sainte Croix in Cap-Haitien years earlier, introduced a program to expand the teaching apostolate of the College Notre-Dame to the rural peasant adult population. He called his revolutionary program IDEA, L’Institut diocésain d’éducation des adultes. The philosophy underlying IDEA was that peasants have the right to ask questions, demand answers, and control their own communities. Father Yvon Joseph was surprised at the first meetings in remote rural communities. In one setting, an initial discussion began with the peasants being asked to describe their needs. One after another, the peasants around the circle hesitatingly claimed that their most pressing need was for a jail on their mountain. In Duvalier’s Haiti, Father Yvon was surprised that poor peasants should want yet another jail. Asked to elaborate, the peasants explained that when local people were arrested, they were escorted to the regional jail by the local tonton macoute (Duvalier’s brutal police force) who used the journey to torment the person in custody. A jail on the mountain, within earshot of the local community, might dissuade the macoute and protect the community from his cruelty. Over time, and with much encouragement, such conversations with local peasant communities throughout the Haitian countryside raised their consciousness of the abuses they suffered and the needs they shared. Peasants educated themselves about how they fit into global economic practices. The Creole-speaking peasants called IDEA lave je, to clean the eyes. IDEA was an important element in the peasant uprisings that eventually led to the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.

Father Joseph also influenced his Canadian confreres who were facing a new world in which previously colonized people refused the old hierarchies. They studied liberation theology that came to the north from Latin America. (The Haitian majority look to the south for friends, to the north with caution.) At the time that the notion of “a preference for the poor” was being articulated, one of the young students at the College Notre-Dame in Cap-Haitien was Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Father Joseph would later work towards literacy in Aristide’s governments. He remains involved in literacy work in the current Haitian government.

Father Jean-Claude Legault was removed from the debates taking place at the College Notre-Dame in Cap-Haitien. Born of a working-class family in Montreal, he was the parish priest in the remote mountain community of Petit-Bourg from 1952 to 1977. He says that the local peasants believed that the white man knew everything. However, he thinks that they took pleasure in his ability to undermine the authorities of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime. Once, the local deputy, a haughty mulatto woman who treated the peasants with disdain, asked Father Legault for a list of all the sources of his funding. He did not want to give it to her. He invited her to his place and, before she arrived, he covered himself in grease to make it clear that her visit was not more important than his daily chores. The Haitian elite was contemptuous of manual labour along with the class that performs it. The peasants watched, amazed and delighted in witnessing the racial hierarchy upended: the mulatto elite distinguished itself from the peasants by its connection to the white, French-speaking world that Father Legault represented. It took a white Canadian to help a mulatto official climb down (against her will) to the level of the black peasants where – to come full circle – he was most comfortable. He offered a seat on the rock next to him. He never gave her a list of the sources of his resources.

The ‘preference for the poor’ is always also the preference for truth. Both Haitians and whites could play a role in transforming Haitian society. The incidents mentioned above contributed to the fall of the Duvalier regime and the ensuing efforts to build a more just society. When you enter into a system of domination, the moral choice is to understand it and use whatever power you have to undermine it. There are different ways to shine the light on the darkness of power. Father Joseph is doing it with his life’s work of literacy in the mountains of Haiti. Father Legault did it with a dab of grease.

We in North America need to educate ourselves about our relationship with the poor of Haiti, and then to refuse our role as written by the world’s imperialists. That we have put 11.9 Billion American dollars into the hands of Bill Clinton is one of the great outrages in a history that overflows with insults. Meanwhile, Joegodson and I have attracted the attention of the most humble actors in Clinton’s drama. Father Legault is now eighty-one and wheelchair bound. He passes messages to Joegodson this week as my long-distance provider has cut my service, refusing even to acknowledge my requests that they forgive our calls as a donation to our project in return for a public acknowledgement. Of course, I understand that every donation must be sanctioned by those in power. Those in power are the very ones that are doing everything to ensure that the voice of the Haitian poor is thoroughly defused of its power before it is diffused throughout North America. We will pursue that state of affairs in the coming articles.

Louise, another insightful friend of both Joegodson and I, offers emotional and intellectual support, like Father Legault. She wisely wrote to us this week that the physical deprivations of Haiti could be addressed; however, the deeper issues will not be healed with donations of food and tents. In fact, I fear that they are being reinforced. Here, we see that the will of the Haitian people is being thwarted by the current response to the catastrophe. The goal of Lavalas has always been to move towards ‘poverty with dignity.’ The reconstruction of Haiti, in the hands of Bill Clinton and the other masters of the world, is a direct attack on the dignity of poor Haitians.

Joegodson and I cannot afford a telephone call in the service of giving voice to the poorest of Port-au-Prince. Clinton plans the future of Haiti with billions of dollars at his disposal. Someone ask him if he can name one Haitian who is not from the oligarchy. Aristide, who grew out of the poor and remains connected to them, remains forbidden to set foot on Haitian soil. Whether or not you have bought the rumours and gossip meant to discredit him, he is still the choice of the poor majority of Haitians. Would Clinton like to run against him in a referendum on the right to lead the Reconstruction? Our upcoming articles will focus on the work of charities in helping the Haitian poor and robbing them of their dignity.

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