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Canadian Dimension Special: What’s Left of Quebec Left?

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By Yves Engler Special to Canadian Dimension April 12, 2008.

Over the past century, a line has divided the left around the world. On one side sit “progressive forces” willing to support imperialism and war, usually in return for a “seat at the table” or some other perk of power. The most discussed example of Left support for imperialism was at the beginning of the First World War when most parties of the Second International sided with their own ruling class and governments in the slaughter that followed. On the other side of the Left divide are those individuals and organizations that take a principled position in favour of real democracy for all the world’s people and oppose imperialism and colonialism in all its forms, especially when it is their ruling class involved. Some might say the former is the “pretend Left” and the later the “authentic Left.”

So what sort of Left is there left in Québec? To help answer this question the case of Haiti is instructive.

Corporations based in this province such as SNC Lavalin, St. Genevieve Resources and Gildan Activewear reaped rewards from the overthrow of Haiti’s elected government on Feb. 29, 2004. Québec City provided the coup government with important political support. “Various Haitian ministers have visited Québec, particularly in the fall of 2004” reports the government’s website. During the coup government’s reign, Jean Charest made the first-ever official trip by a Québec premier to Haiti. (The government’s website boasts that Charest met the, US-installed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue four times). These visits helped advance a variety of educational and legal initiatives by this province to further subordinate Haitian political sovereignty. And since the coup, Québec police have been at the forefront in reestablishing foreign control over Haiti’s police force.

The politicians who shaped Ottawa’s decision to help overthrow Haiti’s elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, were all Québec-based Liberals (Pierre Pettigrew, Dennis Coderre and Denis Paradis). These federalist politicians acted with firm support from the Bloc Québecois. In a telling example, at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Bloc MP Pierre Paquette criticized the NDP for using the word “removal” to describe what happened on Feb. 29, 2004 to Aristide. Paquette insisted the NDP’s Alexa McDonough use the word “departure” instead.

As an advanced capitalist state, Québec support for Western imperialism in Haiti should not be surprising. Already, thirty years ago, the Parti Québecois stated that an independent Québec would continue its membership in NATO, NORAD and even the Commonwealth. What’s surprising is the extent to which the ‘left’ has been a participant in Québecois imperialism.

A recent report published by Alternatives, considered to be one of Québec’s most ‘left’-leaning non-governmental organizations, provides an eye into this province’s colonial attitude vis-a-vis Haiti. The most disturbing statement in the report titled “Haiti: Voices of the Actors” reads: “In a country like Haiti, in which democratic culture has never taken hold, the concept of the common good and the meaning of elections and representation are limited to the educated elites, and in particular to those who have received citizen education within the social movements.”

According to Alternatives, Haitians are too stupid to know what’s good for them, unless, that is, they’ve been educated by a foreign NGO. The report, which was financed by Ottawa, is full of other attacks against Haitians and the country’s popular movement. “Haiti: Voices of the Actors” is simply the latest example of (near unanimous) Québec ‘Left’ support for western intervention in Haiti.

At the height of the destabilization campaign against the elected government in February 2004 the province’s largest union federation, the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), forcefully opposed the Haitian government. On February 12th, the FTQ sent out a partisan press release condemning the Aristide government. On February 16th and 17th, Fernand Daoust, the former head of the FTQ, along with representatives of Québec’s next two biggest union federations, participated in an international union delegation critical of Haiti’s government. The delegation garnered significant media attention in Haiti and after returning from Haiti, Daoust was quoted throughout the Québec media denouncing the Aristide government. On March 1st, a day after the elected president was removed by US marines, the FTQ sent out a press release celebrating the release of detained union activists and calling on the international community to “help Haitians build democracy in their country.”

The FTQ’s condemnations of Haiti’s elected government took place while a CIA backed paramilitary invasion (led by well-known thugs such as Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain) terrorized the country. All the while, a well-orchestrated and internationally (principally the US, France and Canada) financed destabilization campaign against Haiti’s government was under way. It is clear that the FTQ’s criticism of Haiti’s government contributed to a successful destabilization campaign that helped justify Canada’s participation in the coup.

To the best of my knowledge, the FTQ has not commented on the transport union that was destroyed after the coup, the Confederation de Travailleurs Haitiens (CTH) offices attacked in September 2004, the death threats by the police against CTH leader, Lulu Cherie in December 2004 or the massive increase in human rights violations after the coup.

The FTQ, as well as the province’s third largest union federation, the CSQ, are members of the Concertation Pour Haïti (CPH) - along with Development and Peace, Amnesty Internationale (Québec chapter), Entraide Missionnaire and a half dozen other NGOs. The CPH is an informal group that branded Aristide a “tyrant,” his government a “dictatorship,” and a “regime of terror” and in mid-February 2004 called for Aristide’s removal. The CPH’s antagonism towards Aristide’s Lavalas party wasn’t merely a by-product of the political upheaval of February 2004.

The CPH repeated the claim first made by Haiti’s ruling elite that Lavalas launched an “Operation Baghdad,” which included beheading police officers. Numerous observers have noted that “Operation Baghdad” was simply pro-coup propaganda designed to divert attention from the de facto government’s misdeeds, particularly the murder of at least five peaceful, pro-constitution demonstrators on September 30, 2004.

In a January 27, 2006 letter to Allan Rock, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, the CPH and Montreal-based Rights & Democracy echoed the extreme right’s demand for increased repression in the country’s largest poor neighborhood and bastion of support for the ousted president, Cité Soleil. A couple of weeks after a business-sector “strike” demanding that UN troops aggressively attack “gangsters” in Cité Soleil, the CPH questioned the “true motives of the UN mission.” The letter also questioned whether UN forces were “protecting armed bandits more than restoring order and ending violence.”

Criticizing the UN for softness in Cité Soleil flies in the face of evidence of its brutality there, including a murderous attack on a hospital documented by English-speaking Canadian solidarity activists just prior to the CPH letter. Of course, the most stark example of UN repression in Cite Soleil was a raid on July 6, 2005 to kill a “gang” leader. That operation left at least 23 civilians dead. (Kevin Pina’s film Haiti: The UNtold Story documents the chilling brutality of UN forces.)

The Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI, in French) is one prominent Québec NGO involved in Haiti that is no longer part of the CPH. A year ago, a CECI spokesperson told me they were uncomfortable with the political nature of the CPH. Yet prior to the coup, CECI’s honorary spokesperson, Haitian-Québec singer and high profile Québec nationalist, Luc Mervil, led a demonstration in Montreal demanding Aristide’s ouster. The group has also publicly endorsed the UN occupation. On January 31st 2007, their spokesperson told Le Devoir “the muscular interventions led by Minustah [UN forces] in the hot zones of the capital have cooled down the passion of the armed groups. We can now circulate more freely in the capital.”

Six days before these comments appeared, a UN raid on Cité Soleil left five dead and a dozen wounded, according to Agence France Presse. A month earlier, on December 22, a UN assault on Cité Soleil (marketed by its architects as an action against “armed gangs” allegedly responsible for a spate of kidnappings) left scores of civilians dead and wounded, including women and children. Agence France Presse indicated that at least 12 people were killed and “several dozen” wounded, a casualty total over 40. A Haitian human rights organization, AUMOD, reported 20 killed. The Agence Haitienne de Presse reported “very serious property damage” following the UN attack, and concerns that “a critical water shortage may now develop because water cisterns and pipes were punctured by the gunfire.”

Québec NGOs’ (and unions) public endorsement of western intervention in Haiti has gone a long way to dampen opposition to the coup. Just as important, the above-cited NGOs are integral to the US-Canadian strategy of supporting the middle-class opposition to the Lavalas movement. Too often, NGO projects inadvertently divided the popular movement by channeling Haitian political actors into piecemeal initiatives instead of building a mass movement. Foreign NGOs also directly undermined the Lavalas movement by funding only opposition groups. In June 2005, for instance, an Alternative’s representative, François L’Ecuyer, admitted that all 15 groups Alternatives works with in Haiti are anti-Lavalas.

The differences between the Québec and English Canadian Left on Haiti are stark. English Canadian unions, anti-war groups and radical media have generally been sympathetic to the notion that Canada participated in a brutal coup. When progressive media such as The Dominion, New Socialist Magazine or Canadian Dimension published recent issues focusing on Canadian imperialism, they all ran at least one article detailing Canadian crimes in Haiti. Conversely, at the height of Canadian-backed repression in Haiti, ‘radical’ Québec publication À Babord! published an issue devoted to Canadian imperialism that failed to even mention Canada’s role in Haiti.

The story is similar amongst anti-war groups and unions. Canadian Peace Alliance affiliates generally denounced and organized against Canada’s role in Haiti. Yet, when members of Montreal’s Échec à la guerre, tried to pass a (mild) condemnation of Canada’s involvement in Haiti, they were blocked by two of their members, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and AQOCI (an umbrella group representing two dozen Québec NGOs).

In the months after the removal of Haiti’s elected government, progressive elements within the Canadian Labour Congress tried to pass a resolution critical of Canada’s role in overthrowing Aristide and supporting a murderous dictatorship. The FTQ, which claims responsibility for relations with “French” speaking countries at the CLC, worked to dilute opposition within the CLC. Likewise, the FTQ’s Le Monde Ouvriere advanced hard line anti-Aristide propaganda in October 2004.

Last month the FTQ issued a 59-page report on Haiti that simply ignores the coup and its aftermath. How can the future of Haiti be seriously discussed without mentioning the coup? Would the FTQ discuss the future of Iraq without considering the U.S. war?

The closest thing in the report to a mention of the 2004 coup is when Haiti’s most important union federation, the CTH, is criticized for its sympathy towards Lavalas.

Probably the most disturbing example of a ‘radical’ group siding with imperialism in Haiti is Québec Solidaire. Québec Solidaire’s spokesperson, Francoise David, traveled to Haiti in the midst of the coup government’s crimes and upon returning, she publicly (on Radio Canada and elsewhere) parroted the elite’s perspective, blaming supporters of the ousted government for violence in Haiti. On March 9th, 2006, David spoke at a Concertation pour Haïti event along with Danielle Magloire, a member of the “Council of the Wise” that appointed the brutal coup prime minister Gérard Latortue. In mid-July 2005, Magloire issued a statement on behalf of the seven-member “Council of the Wise” saying that any media that gives voice to “bandits” (code for Aristide supporters) should be shut down. She also asserted that Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party should be banned from upcoming elections.

The only example of Québec Solidaire publicly expressing its opposition towards the intervention in Haiti that I’ve come across was a single line by a candidate running in a heavily Haitian diaspora riding in Montreal. The party even remained quiet when in March 2006 Québec Premier Jean Charest wined and dined bloodstained coup dictator, Gerard Latortue.

More than four years later, it should be abundantly clear that the coup dealt a terrible blow to Haiti. The coup ushered in a terrible wave of state-sponsored repression, a rise in kidnapping and other social disorders as well as a multifold increase in the price of basic food commodities. Also, Haiti’s poor majority have rejected Canadian policy time and again, most obviously by electing Rene Preval, an associate of Aristide, as President. In the face of almost uniformly hostile national and international press, tens of thousands continue to demonstrate demanding an end to the occupation and the return of Aristide. A month ago, between five thousand (Associated Press) and ten thousand (Haiti Liberte) took to the streets of Port-Au Prince on the four-year anniversary of the coup.

So, why in the face of significant evidence (documented in a number of books, movies etc.) does the Québec ‘Left’ continue to support a brutal class war by this province’s institutions against an already impoverished population?

Could it be the numerous Québec-based companies that do business in Haiti? Or the fact that the Aristide government promoted the Creole language at the expense of French? Can it be explained by the role of Québec missionaries in Haiti? Or have Québec NGOs simply been bought off by Canadian aid money?

Since the time of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Québec missionaries have played a significant role in Haiti. Many of the clergy that were pushed out of Québec during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s made their way to Haiti to work under the brutal Duvalier dictatorship (who took control of the church). This relationship has continued over the years with Haiti home to more Canadian missionaries than any country in the western hemisphere.

Much to the dismay of the Catholic church, the Aristide government supported the voodoo religion, legalizing voodoo marriages, baptisms and funerals in May 2003. Some of Québec’s most rabidly anti-Aristide NGOs, most notably Entraide Missionaire and the Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, have religious ties. (In March 2006, a Development and Peace Background paper explained: “The international media has shrouded the departure of Aristide on 29 February 2004 with conspiracy theories, going so far in some cases as to claim that the CIA deposed the president in a coup d’état…In fact, Aristide himself was largely responsible for the circumstances that led to his forced departure.”)

An encounter with a Québecoise nun running a convent where I stayed in Haiti’s second city, Cap Haitien, provides a window into Québec missionary thinking. She told me that Aristide was the country’s biggest drug runner. When pressed on the matter, she said she wasn’t there for politics, but to help people out.

The importance of Québec missionaries in Haiti should not be dismissed. The convent where I stayed in Cap Haitien was the largest institution in the neighbourhood. Moreover, Québec missionaries have long received official support. The initial disbursement of Canadian aid to Haiti went to missionary work and in 1964 Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson justified sending a Canadian naval vessel to Haiti by noting, “if Canadian nuns or priests should be wounded or killed, it would be difficult to explain why the Canadian government had not…taken some form of action.”

Of greater consequence in tying the Québec ‘left’ to imperialism in Haiti, are the large number of international NGO’s in this province. In the late 1960s, Ottawa drastically expanded its aid to francophone nations as a way to placate Québec nationalists. Prior to this, Canadian aid was focused on the recently decolonized former British colonies. Aid to the Francophonie was designed to convince Québec nationalists that the Canadian government was sympathetic to francophone culture. Québec’s large number of CIDA-funded international NGOs (and the jobs they provide) is a testament to the federal government’s policy of tying Québecers to its overall aid objectives. (Additionally, Québec City provides much more development assistance than any other provincial government, largely to project this province’s linguistic heritage.)

Dependence on government money helps explain many NGO’s position on Haiti. Most of the groups that supported Canadian intervention in Haiti, including the unions (through the Centre International de Solidarité Ouvrière), have long received money for work in Haiti from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). And post-coup Haiti has been an absolute bonanza for Québec-based NGOs – they have received tens of millions of dollars from the Canadian (and Québec) government.

Canadian NGOs working in Haiti are largely from Québec. The reason is simple: a perceived common language. Canadian Development Assistance to Haiti explains Haiti’s importance to Québec: “As the only independent French-speaking country in Latin American and the Caribbean, Haiti is of special importance for the preservation of the French language and culture.”

But most Haitians don’t speak French, they speak Creole. French is the language of Haiti’s elite and language has served as a mechanism through which they maintain their privilege. A Québecois group in Haiti almost invariably reinforces the influence of French. Whether conscious or not, a French-focused foreigner in Haiti has taken (at least linguistically speaking) a side in the country’s brutal class war. The Aristide government had (successfully) weakened the influence of French, which no doubt contributed to many “progressive” Québecors’ antagonism.

What motivates an individual to actively support imperialism is difficult to pinpoint. But vocal anti-Aristide critic, the FTQ’s Fernand Daoust provides some interesting hypotheses.

Daoust, who is one of Québec’s leading advocates for the French language, sits on the board of the Fondation Paul Gérin-Lajoie (named after the former head of CIDA). The Fondation Lajoie teaches Haitian primary-school children in French and is known to be antagonistic to Creole, the language spoken by all Haitians.

Was Daoust antagonistic to Aristide for promoting Creole? Maybe not, but his views of Haitian politics were likely shaped by people who were.

The former leader of the province’s largest union also has revealing ties to parts of “Québec Inc” that benefited from the interruption of democracy in Haiti. When Daoust went to Haiti in February 2004, he hadn’t worked for the union for a decade. Rather he was Special Advisor to the FTQ President regarding its investment arm, le Fond de Solidarite, which he’s helped turn into a $7 billion source of capital. Le Fond controlled 12% (once as high as 16%) of the world’s largest blank t-shirt maker, Montreal based Gildan Activewear, had one of three outside seats on the company’s board and was cited throughout Gildan’s internal financial reports. (Three months prior to the coup, le Fond announced it would sell its highly profitable shares in Gildan due to the company’s history of terrible labor practices in Honduras, yet as of Feb 2007 La Presse reported that le Fond still held a significant amount of Gildan stock).

At the time of the coup, Gildan had a factory in Port-Au Prince and planned to close its remaining North American operations to expand in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which they’ve done). Gildan was also the primary subcontractor for Alpha Industries, owned by Andy Apaid, head of the Group 184 domestic opposition to Aristide. Directly and indirectly, Gildan employed as many as 5,000 people in Haiti’s assembly sector. Presumably, both Gildan and Apaid were disgruntled with the Aristide government’s decision to increase the minimum wage from 36 gourdes to 70 gourdes in February 2003.

Did anyone Daoust knows at le Fond de Solidarite with connections to Gildan, criticize Aristide to him?

Daoust also has ties to the leading beneficiary of post-coup Canadian government reconstruction projects in Haiti, Montreal based SNC Lavalin. (SNC is probably Canada’s leading ‘disaster capitalist’ corporation.) As a Fond representative, Daoust sits on the board of the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, along with SNC Lavalin’s vice president for the Americas and a number of other pro-coup NGOs. Similarly he sits on the board of the Université de Montreal with Bernard Lamarre, president of SNC-Lavalin. In 2004, le Fonds purchased Papeterie Gaspésia de Chandler for $350 million with SNC and another partner.

Did Daoust’s contact with SNC representatives contribute to his support for western intervention in Haiti?

In February 2004, Daoust confidently opposed Haiti’s elected government yet during a conversation in the Fall of 2007, Daoust confessed little knowledge of Haiti. He did not even want to talk about the subject without notes. Daoust admitted that after the coup he was surprised to encounter Haitian Montrealers who still supported Aristide.

To summarize, there seems to be four structural reasons that led the Québec Left to participate in brutal western intervention in Haiti: the French language, missionaries, Québec Inc and Canadian aid dollars. Tying them all together is nationalism. The Left is reaping the reward for decades of allying itself with nationalist elements of the Québec ruling class.

What sort of Left is left in Québec? The type that is willing to side with its bosses and the bosses of Haiti against the poor majority of Haitians. The sort of Left that participates in imperialism. Most of the Left in Québec even sides with Ottawa and Washington, against much of the English left.

For many decades the English-speaking left in Canada was impressed by the militancy and strength of Québec unions, political parties and grassroots organizations. If the example of Haiti is an indication, it’s about time they look elsewhere for inspiration.

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