The words they won’t use to describe Canada’s role in Haiti

As a months-long popular uprising targets the Canadian Embassy in Haiti, mainstream media and politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of Canada’s foreign policy
Photo: Jovenel Moïse, first row second from left, with Justin Trudeau and other leaders at the 2018 G7 summit. (Photo: Statsministerens kontor)
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“Say my name, say my name / If no one is around you / Say baby I love you / If you ain’t runnin’ game / Say my name, say my name / You actin’ kinda shady / Ain’t callin’ me baby” - Destiny’s Child

Something you can’t name is very difficult to talk about. Canada’s role in Haiti is a perfect example. Even when the dominant media and mainstream politicians mention the remarkable ongoing revolt in the Caribbean nation or the protesters there who are targeting Canada, they fall on their faces in explaining it.

Not one journalist or politician has spoken this truth, easily verified by all sorts of evidence: Sixteen years ago Ottawa initiated an effort to overthrow Haiti’s elected government and has directly shaped the country’s politics since then. Many Haitians are unhappy about the subversion of their sovereignty, undermining of their democracy and resulting impoverishment.

Media omissions

Protesters targeted the Canadian Embassy in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Oct. 27. Voice of America reported that “some protesters successfully set fire to business establishments and attempted to burn down the Canadian Embassy.” A few days earlier, protesters threw rocks at the Canadian Embassy and demonstrators have repeatedly condemned Canadian imperialism. In response to the targeting of Canada’s diplomatic representation in the country, Haiti’s puppet government released a statement apologizing to Ottawa, and the embassy was closed for a number of days.

Echoing the protesters’ immediate demand for President Jovenel Moïse to go, an open letter was released on Oct. 29 calling on Justin Trudeau’s government to stop propping up the repressive and corrupt Haitian government. David Suzuki, Roger Waters, Amir Khadir, Maude Barlow, Linda McQuaig, Will Prosper, Tariq Ali, Yann Martel and more than 100 other writers, musicians, activists and professors signed the letter, which called on “the Canadian government to stop backing a corrupt, repressive and illegitimate Haitian president.”

While a number of left media ran the letter, major news outlets, including francophone ones, failed to publish or report on it. La Presse and Radio Canada failed to cover the letter at all. Le Devoir did not publish the letter when it was submitted to them, although an article published in their paper two weeks later did mention it.

My impression from interacting with the media on the issue is that they knew the letter deserved attention, particularly outlets in Quebec that cover Haiti. But there was discomfort because the letter focused on Canada’s negative role. (The letter is actually quite mild, not even mentioning the 2004 coup, militarization designed to contain the potential for popular revolts after the 2010 earthquake, and other important issues.)

Ignoring Canada’s role

On Oct. 31, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously endorsed a motion put forward by the Liberal Party’s foreign affairs critic, Paule Robitaille, declaring “our unreserved solidarity with the Haitian people and their desire to find a stable and secure society.” It urges “support for any peaceful and democratic exit from the crisis coming from Haitian civil society actors.”

Haiti is the site of the most sustained popular uprising among the many that are currently sweeping the globe.

In March, Québec Solidaire’s international affairs critic, Catherine Dorion, released a slightly better statement “in solidarity with the Haitian people.” While the left-wing party’s release was a positive step, it also ignored Canada’s diplomatic, financial and policing support to Moïse (not to mention Canada’s role in the 2004 coup or Moïse’s rise to power). Québec Solidaire deputies did not sign the open letter calling on “the Canadian government to stop backing a corrupt, repressive and illegitimate Haitian president.”

Even when media mention protests against Canada, they can’t give a coherent explanation for why Haitians would target the Great White North. On Oct. 30, Radio Canada began a television segment on the uprising in Haiti by mentioning the targeting of the Canadian Embassy and showing an image of a protester holding a sign that read “Fuck USA. Merde la France. Fuck Canada.” The eight-minute interview with Haiti-based Quebec reporter Etienne Côté-Paluck went downhill from there. As Jean Saint-Vil wrote in an indignant response posted to Facebook explaining that these three countries are not targeted because they provide “humanitarian aid” to Haiti, “This is only racist, paternalistic and imperialist propaganda! They say ‘Fuck Canada’, ‘Shit France’, ‘Fuck USA’ because they are not blind, dumb or idiots.”

Media should know better

A few days earlier Radio Canada’s Luc Chartrand also mentioned that Canada, France and the U.S. were targeted by protesters he observed on a recent trip to Haiti. While mentioning those three countries together is an implicit reference to the 2004 coup triumvirate that backed the removal of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the interview and other coverage by Chartrand focused on how these and other countries were being targeted as major donors to Haiti. Yet seconds before Chartrand talked about protesters targeting the Canada-France-U.S. “aid donors,” he mentioned a multi-billion-dollar Venezuelan aid program (accountability for Haitian government corruption in the subsidized Venezuelan oil program is an important demand of protesters). So, if Haitians are angry with “aid donors,” why aren’t they protesting Venezuela?

Chartrand should know better. Solidarité Québec-Haiti founder Marie Dimanche and I met with him before he left for Haiti. I also personally sent Chartrand two critical pieces of information chosen specifically because they couldn’t be dismissed as coming from a radical and are irreconcilable with the benevolent Canada silliness pushed by the dominant media. First, I emailed him a 2003 story in L’actualité by prominent Quebec journalist Michel Vastel, “Haïti mise en tutelle par l’ONU? Il faut renverser Aristide. Et ce n’est pas l’opposition haïtienne qui le réclame, mais une coalition de pays rassemblée à l’initiative du Canada!” (Haiti under UN trusteeship? We must overthrow Aristide. And it is not the Haitian opposition calling for it, but a coalition of countries gathered at the initiative of Canada!)

Even though there was no war, for a period there were more foreign troops in Haiti per square kilometre than in Afghanistan or Iraq

Vastel’s article was about a meeting to discuss Haiti’s future that Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government hosted on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2003. No Haitian representative was invited to the meeting where high-level U.S., Canadian and French officials discussed overthrowing elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, putting the country under international trusteeship, and resurrecting Haiti’s dreaded military. Thirteen months after the Ottawa Initiative meeting, U.S., French and Canadian troops pushed Aristide out and a quasi-UN trusteeship began. The Haitian police were subsequently militarized.

The second piece of information I sent Chartrand was the Canadian Press revelation, or confirmation, that after the deadly 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, Canadian authorities continued their inhumane and antidemocratic course. According to internal government documents the Canadian Press examined a year after the disaster, officials in Ottawa feared a post-earthquake power vacuum could lead to a “popular uprising.” One briefing note marked “secret” explained: “Political fragility has increased the risks of a popular uprising, and has fed the rumour that ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, currently in exile in South Africa, wants to organize a return to power.” The documents also explained the importance of strengthening the Haitian authorities’ ability “to contain the risks of a popular uprising.”

To police Haiti’s traumatized and suffering population, 2,050 Canadian troops were deployed alongside 12,000 U.S. soldiers and 1,500 UN troops (on top of the 8,000 UN soldiers already there). Even though there was no war, for a period there were more foreign troops in Haiti per square kilometre than in Afghanistan or Iraq (and about as many per capita). Though Ottawa rapidly deployed 2,050 troops, officials ignored calls to dispatch Canada’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams, which are trained to find people trapped in collapsed structures.

Solidarity means highlighting Canada’s true role

Of course, these two pieces of information run completely counter to the dominant narrative about Canada’s role in Haiti. In fact, they flip it on its head. But combined — along with hundreds of stories published by left-wing Canadian and Haitian media — they help explain why some Haitians might want to burn the Canadian Embassy.

Haiti is the site of the most sustained popular uprising among the many that are currently sweeping the globe. Haitians are revolting against the IMF, racism, imperialism, and extreme economic inequality. They’re also fighting against Canadian foreign policy.

The latter battle is the most important one for Canadians. Solidarity activists should highlight Haitians’ rejection of 16 years of Canadian disregard for their democratic rights.

And they should not be afraid to use the words that describe this best: Canadian imperialism.

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