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On Shaky Ground

Latin America and the Caribbean

Everyone likes to be on solid ground. But it’s amazing what you can get used to. Last night (February 1), there was another tremor in Port-au-Prince just as people had retired to their community bedrooms in the streets. In Delmas 33, where my friend Vilmond is living with a group of forty people who have come together to see each other through the crisis, people started laughing. Someone joked that he was getting used to the earth rocking him to sleep. “It’s so comforting,” he said.

Canadians are not experiencing the ground moving under their feet day and night. Journalists mediate the sounds and images from Haiti for Canadians using shared assumptions about our history and our place in the world. We allow certain facts into our collective memory and we use that common language to make sense of the present. The earthquake in Haiti has not jostled the assumptions that keep both English and French Canadians on solid ground. The job of public intellectuals, including the vast majority of university scholars, is to admit potentially disruptive events (that cannot be ignored) into society in a way that prevents them from unsettling the social order. Journalists do the first edit. A very receptive public facilitates their work. In contrast, without trying, Creole-speaking Haitians had the power to undermine the way I understood my own country. They educated me in Canadian history. I already had a doctorate in that discipline, but it was irrelevant to the lessons I needed to learn. My time in Haiti was an intellectual and emotional earthquake.

All over Haiti in 2006, I confronted a question that took the general form, Èske ou soldà oubyen misyonè? Was I a soldier or a missionary? Those two professions were anathema to me personally, but I finally understood that the Haitians were trying to tell me something about my history in Haiti. And so, to understand what they saw when they looked at me, I had to research that history. I offer this as an approach to the study of foreign policy. Who are we – already – in the eyes of other peoples? What we need to know can be buried under nationalist and ideological imperatives. The methodology I propose requires that we accept life on unstable ground. In international relations, to do otherwise is to impose your history upon others, over what they already know about you … and you don’t know about yourself. This could be called foreign policy from the very bottom up.

Patrice Roy moderated the extensive, ad hoc coverage of the earthquake for Radio-Canada. Radio-Canada presented not only the earthquake, but also the limits of French Canada’s appreciation of its own history in Haiti. Several times, Roy assured his viewers that the 22e Regiment was being dispatched from Valcartier so that Haitians would be able to speak to Canada’s soldiers in their own language. Of course, the Vandoos don’t speak Creole and the vast majority of Haitians don’t speak French. Roy was mediating the event for French Canada based on a Quebec-centred understanding of the meaning of the French language. However, a common language has separated French Canada from Haiti, not united them. Religion, class, language, race, and gender structure this long history. I will offer here only a hint of the deep and disturbing history shared by Haiti and French Canada.

One of the segments of the Radio-Canada coverage involved Patrice Roy offering the microphone to anxious Haitians who had assembled in the makeshift studio, hoping for any information about their country and their loved ones cut off from the world. Two days after the quake, he asked a gentleman in his thirties quietly sitting in the group for his reaction. The man communicated his obvious distress and added that he wanted to extend his solidarity with the vodouists in Haiti. Roy cut the man off in mid-sentence. I didn’t get the sense that the Haitian man felt comforted by the encounter.

It reminded me of a Montreal radio interview in 1942 in which a Quebec nun promoted the work of her congregation, Les Filles de la Sagesse, in Haiti. The conversion of the world’s infidels to the Catholic Church was the central plank of French Canada’s foreign policy until the 1960s, (a fact almost completely ignored in all Canadian historiography, for different reasons). The Catholic Church, especially powerful in Quebec, saturated French Canada with news from the foreign missions. During the radio program in 1942, the nun 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!”

Darkness indeed! What did the boy not know about the “uncivilized” Haitians in Haiti? Well, the same things that have never entered into our collective memory in either English or French Canada. But the Haitians know about them.

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. The question I encountered, “Are you a missionary?” followed from that basic history. I was white and Canadian. What else?

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. (Those ex-slaves, however, were the people who had overthrown the French colonists and no one has ever been able to forget that in Haiti, no matter how hard they try.) 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.

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 and, increasingly, English. I was startled once to hear a Haitian man insult my very dark-skinned friend, Vilmond, by calling him Afrikan. It is a common epithet. Once conscious of the depth of Haitian racism, I saw it everywhere. I remember once when, seated in one of the pubic squares that had been constructed for the poor by Aristide, Vilmond turned to me and said, “I’ve always wanted to have a white friend.” By then, I understood. A white friend allowed him to leapfrog over the mulatto elite that had always treated him with such contempt. I was what they aspired to be, and I had chosen Vilmond as my friend. When they enter Canada, Haitians all become black and subject to North American racism and racial categories.

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 Saint 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 I would like to add sixty-eight years later. 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.

French and English Canadians were fighting the Nazis in Europe at that moment. I expect most Canadians know that. A number of historians have challenged the nationalist backslapping by documenting Canada’s concurrent prewar and wartime anti-Semitic policies. However, I have never read even a hint that Canada was involved in genocide in Haiti while it was fighting “the good war” in Europe.

In 1973, Yvon Joseph, one of the first Haitians to be ordained into the Pères de Saint Croix in Cap Haitien, 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.

While Quebecois rightly protect their language and culture in North America, French is what Haitians protect themselves from. Roy might have healed a little history by asking the anxious Haitian man in the Radio-Canada studio if he would like to elaborate on the particular problems that vodouists might have in the present situation. While Canadians like to think they saved Jews from the Holocaust, they were actually involved in another religious genocide at the very same moment.

There is a Creole saying, Bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje. “The person who strikes forgets the blow, but the one who bears the scar remembers.”


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