by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
When Elizabeth Philibert arrived in Montreal as an émigré in 1979, she immediately felt the city would be her closest connection to Haiti.
The city’s circle of activists quickly embraced Philibert, who had risked her life on the front lines of Haiti’s anti-Duvalier movement. The movement began in opposition to self-declared "President-for-life" Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and continued against the oppressive regime of his successor and son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Most Canadians may not have heard of Philibert and other Haitian Canadians who, through their collective efforts, influenced Quebec’s cultural and political traditions.
In A Place in the Sun: Haiti, Haitians and the Remaking of Quebec, historian Sean Mills chronicles how the Haitian community, while relegated to the margins, actively challenged the status quo while also finding common ground within it.
Haitians in the Quiet Revolution
Philibert joined the wave of Haitian immigrants who settled in Quebec in the 1960s and 1980s, drawn by shared linguistic and religious ties. She arrived at a time when members of Montreal’s Haitian community were claiming a stake in Quebec’s political future, and Canada’s international affairs.
While Quebec was gripped in its fight for sovereignty, Haitians in the province wielded what resources they had to insert themselves into the political debate.
“The importance of Haitians was well known among many Haitians, of course, but it wasn’t part of mainstream understandings of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath,” says Mills, referring to a period in the 1960s during which the province saw the secularization and expansion of the welfare state in sectors such as health care and education. “I was struck by the involvement of Haitians in the waves of political and cultural activism in the 1960s and 1970s, and I wanted to learn more about these developments.”
Mills’ curiosity led him to delve into the written work of the Haitian diaspora and their oral histories, as told by those who had fled the violence under the two Duvalier regimes. He illuminates the ways Haitians sought to elevate their status in Quebec.
Through their vast literary publications, activism and media appeals they set out to upend a political system intent on shutting them out.
A Place in the Sun revisits history with a new perspective, and succeeds in delivering a nuanced portrait of their lives during a critical juncture in Quebec’s history.
The first contingent of Haitian exiles came in the 1960s. Most were francophone elites who integrated well into society. The second wave of migrants in the 1970s, representing a poorer class who spoke Creole, faced far more discrimination.
That they had markedly different experiences speaks to Quebec’s complex perception of Haiti, Mills writes.
Haiti had long held symbolic significance to Quebec, especially in the 1940s as it sought to establish cultural linkages through its Catholic missionary work. Although they were bound by a shared language and colonial legacy, the missionary cause set them on unequal footing.
It was a relationship defined in familial terms, albeit a paternalistic one, in which Haitians were ridiculed for their religious belief in voodoo and regarded as “childlike” and “devoid of complex thoughts.”
Mills argues, convincingly, that confined as many were to exploitative occupations in the taxi industry or domestic service, Haitian immigrants refused to be reduced to stereotypes. Instead, they cast themselves as political beings capable of exerting pressure on the government to confront its policies and in some cases, to adopt their cause.
“They had to fight to find a place for themselves in a political sphere that did not see them as legitimate interlocutors,” Mills writes. “By entering the political sphere and rupturing its traditional composition, they opened a new space for themselves.”
Culture of activism
It helped that Haitians were attuned enough to know that language can be a potent bargaining chip in Quebec.
One critical test was the “crisis of 1,500” in 1974, when Haitians mobilized support from diverse groups to quash the deportation of non-status migrants.
They appealed both to the “conscience of the population” and used language strategically to position themselves as “ideal francophone immigrants for modern Quebec.” René Lévesque, as Parti Québécois premier, ultimately endorsed their cause on humanitarian grounds, but also for demographic considerations.
For the Haitian diaspora, Quebec became a proxy battlefield through which they could undermine support for the Duvalier regimes. They compelled Canada to confront its policy of distributing foreign aid to a dictatorship, which had driven many to flee and was ultimately the root of the migrant crisis.
These efforts weakened the federal government’s claim that they were merely “economic migrants” as opposed to political refugees. It also served as a rallying cry of solidarity between Quebecers and Haitians, both vying for self-determination.
Although they’ve made significant strides in improving their conditions, the “asymmetrical relationship” between Quebec and Haiti persists, writes Mills. To this day, many of the organizations Haitian immigrants founded remain an enduring force in integrating new arrivals.
“[I’m] continually impressed by the incredible vitality of the Haitian community,” says Mills. “It’s certainly a world that is very alive and vibrant to this day.”
Beatrice Paez is a freelance journalist based in Toronto whose work spans from writing about international development issues to the arts and culture. She also writes a public art column for the Torontoist and co-founded The Origami, an online magazine about Asian Canadians in Toronto.
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