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What does it take to ‘stabilize’ Haiti?

Canada must grapple with how its past interventions have undermined democracy in Haiti, and chart a new path forward

Canadian PoliticsHuman RightsLatin America and the Caribbean

United Nations soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment of the Canadian Army during a patrol at Camp Jean-Marie Vincent, an internally displaced persons camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti during Operation HAMLET, September 3, 2013. Photo by MCpl Marc-André Gaudreault/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/Facebook.

On President Joe Biden’s latest visit to Ottawa he will push Canada to do the US’s bidding to help “stabilize” Haiti, a country mired in a deep humanitarian crisis.

“Stabilize” is diplomatic double-speak which serves a dual function. It conceals the history of both countries’ role in destabilizing Haiti, creating the conditions which many now flee. And it masks their geopolitical collusion to contain Haitian refugees instead of upholding their right to seek asylum.

Canada has an opportunity to make good on its commitments to human rights, feminist foreign policy, and refugee protection—if it can muster the diplomatic wherewithal to stand up to its southern neighbour.

Learning from hidden histories

While Canada agreed to lead an international task force on Haiti, this government has been hemming and hawing about its role and possible solutions.

So far Canada has resisted US pressure to lead an armed intervention, opting for sanctions targeting corrupt Haitian oligarchs and support for the national police. Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, called for a “Haiti-led solution.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Canada must learn from past mistakes.

Then Trudeau sent gunboats to be stationed off the coast of a country with no army. Will he now cave to US pressure to send troops as well?

For those unfamiliar with Canada’s role in destabilizing Haiti, one place to start is by listening to Haitian advocates (and their pro-democracy allies) who are living here. Their voices consistently call for respect for Haitian self-determination, non-intervention, and accountability for Canada’s actions.

Canadians are pained to learn—but must consider—how today’s crisis in Haiti is a legacy of Canadian intervention and why the Core Group, to which Canada belongs, has been called “one of the ‘biggest gangsters in Haiti’.”

Canada must grapple with how its past interventions have undermined democracy, including the 2003 Ottawa Initiative on Haiti, aid for the 2004 overthrow of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and support for police and peacekeepers who harmed the very people they have a responsibility to protect.

Elaine Briere’s 2020 documentary Haiti Betrayed tells a cautionary tale of lessons unlearned as Canada has colluded with the US (and France).

Reaching refugees—before they can reach us

There is a reason why Roxham Road and the Haiti crisis are both on Biden’s agenda as he visits Ottawa. The US and Canada appear to share the geopolitical interest of containing Haitians who are attempting to flee, whether on foot or by sea.

Gunboats off the shores of Port-au-Prince do little to stop gang violence, kidnappings, or rape—but they can intercept the watercraft on which people flee. The Caribbean has long been a laboratory for the US to rehearse its enforcement, intercepting migrants at sea, detaining and deterring.

When Haitians are whipped by US Border Patrol agents on horseback, detained and deported to a country in crisis, of course they will seek refuge in Canada. They will risk life and limb to cross the border at Roxham Road because they have to enter in order to claim asylum here.

The US is not a safe country for Haitian refugees. The Safe Third Country Agreement must not be renegotiated; it must be rescinded.

Canadians have thrown open the doors for Ukrainians, Afghans, and Syrians. Where is the warm welcome for Haitian refugees? Why would Québec not wish to receive the French speakers who are coming to contribute, just as earlier generations of Haitian-Canadians have?

Rethinking Canada’s role

Stabilizing Haiti not only requires that Canada refuse to intervene militarily. Canada must also decouple the humanitarian from the drive toward intervention.

For Canada to be humanitarian, it must walk away from the Core Group, which continues to destabilize Haiti (especially were it to heed the call of the unelected Ariel Henry to intervene militarily in his own country), and walk toward the refugees trying to reach our borders.

As a signatory to the Global Compact for Refugees, Canada can lead negotiations on responsibility sharing among countries receiving Haitian refugees.

It can channel development assistance to civil society groups in Haiti and the diaspora so they can actively shape the future of Haiti.

And Canada can respect human rights by recognizing that those fleeing systematic violence in Haiti are refugees exercising their right to seek asylum.

Canada has a humanitarian history of serving as a safe haven for people seeking refuge. The Canadian-Haitian history yet to be written should be one of deep and abiding respect for Haitians’ self-determination.

Allison Petrozziello is a researcher and human rights advocate with the International Migration Research Centre, who is completing a PhD in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, ON. She researches Haitian migration in collaboration with the Caribbean Migrants Observatory and teaches Latin American politics at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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